Migrant program offers lessons for reaching Latino preschoolers

HUGHSON, Calif. – Long before President Obama triggered a new national interest in universal preschool earlier this year, a Central Valley-based Head Start program for children of migrant workers has been breaking down barriers that have kept Latino families out of early learning programs.

Data suggests that Latino children, who now make up more than half of children under 5 years old in California, have historically enrolled in early education programs at lower rates than their peers in other ethnic groups.

“We know from 20 years of research that a lot of Latino parents prefer to use home-based care, and that preschools appear to be excessively formal and sometimes not inviting institutions” to those parents, said University of California, Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, who has spent years studying early education issues in the Latino community.

“Formal” and “not inviting” are not terms that could be used to describe the child development center in Hughson, a small agricultural community nine miles southwest of Modesto. Four portable classrooms sit facing a play area with a jungle gym and a swing set. On a recent morning, the center was filled with 52 children ranging in age from newborn to 5 years old.

One of the reasons parents give for feeling welcome at the center is relatively simple: Spanish is spoken here.

And it’s not just that an effort is made to communicate with parents in Spanish, but also that children are instructed in both Spanish and English.

In the preschool classroom at the Hughson center, 3- and 4-year-olds sat in a circle on the rug listening to teacher Gabriela Mora reading the story of the three little pigs, or los tres cerditos. The kids were glued to the drama of the huffing and the puffing and the blowing down of houses. Mora was reading in Spanish, but when she paused to ask questions, kids answered in both languages.

“Que hicieron Paco y Pascual?” Mora asked her students in Spanish. Translation: “What did Paco and Pascual do?” Asking open questions about what characters have done or what is about to happen is an effective way to engage young children in reading, Mora said later.

“El lobo va a venir y va a soplar asi: Pfft!” responded Azul Ontiveros, puffing out her cheeks and blowing down an imaginary house.

“Muy bien!” Mora praised Azul. Turning the page to a drawing of a brick house, Mora pointed to the brightly colored door. “Que color es?” she asked.

“Yellow!” called out one boy.

“Yellow, yes,” Mora said. “Que color es?” she asked again, pointing at the grass.

“Verde!” called out a girl, using the Spanish word for “green.”

“Si,” Mora said, “verde.”

As is typical in classrooms for young children, nearly every item in the room is labeled to help kids associate words with objects. But at Hughson, the labels are in both English and Spanish. For example, the door is marked as both “door” and “la puerta.”

The Hughson center is part of a network of Head Start programs called Central California Migrant Head Start, which runs more than 50 centers and serves more than 3,100 children in Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and Santa Cruz counties.

“It’s not that English language development isn’t a priority,” said Tony Jordan, the program administrator for Central California Migrant Head Start. “It is.”

But Jordan said learning a second language is easier for young children if they can first develop a wide vocabulary and basic literacy skills in their first language.

Aggressive outreach to parents and a focus on hiring Spanish-speaking staff mean the program has no trouble filling its seats. There’s even a year-round waiting list that climbs into the many hundreds during peak harvest seasons.

Getting families to take advantage of this program means active recruitment, said Janet Orvis-Cook, the executive director of child and family services for Stanislaus County Office of Education, the umbrella organization for the migrant program.

“We go where the families are,” Orvis-Cook said. “We go to the church, to flea markets, to the farmers and to labor contractors. Out in the fields they wear bandanas to keep the sweat off, so we have bandanas that have our name and all our phone numbers.”

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services named the Central California Migrant Head Start program a Center of Excellence. It was the only migrant program in the country to earn the award, which is awarded on the basis of “long-standing and consistent records of implementing exemplary services and demonstrating positive outcomes for children and families.”

To qualify for a spot in Migrant Head Start, families must earn at least 50 percent of their income from agricultural work, have moved at least once in the last two years and have an annual income below the federal poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four. The program is free to those who qualify and costs an average of $8,776 per child annually depending on the exact program. For example, some programs offer half-day care, while others offer full-day care.

Berta Sanchez of nearby Denair has two children, both of whom have attended full-day programs at the Hughson center. Sanchez, who works at a nearby plant nursery, said she first heard about the program when a recruiter knocked on her door. Her daughter Sandra, now 3, was only 6 months old at the time, but she enrolled her older son. Sanchez says her son is doing so well in elementary school that he recently earned an academic award and Sandra is now enrolled in Mora’s class.

“My daughter knows her ABCs, she knows the song about the ‘little star’ and she can write her name,” Sanchez said in Spanish with obvious pride in her child’s progress at the center.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama called for universal preschool for 4-year-olds and has continued to press the issue since then.

The demand for more subsidized preschool spots is substantial. The two largest free public preschool programs operating in California now, state-funded preschool and federally funded Head Start, are unable to serve all the children whose family incomes make them eligible to attend.

In fact, Head Start programs in California are currently serving only about 60 percent of eligible children, according to the California Head Start Association.

There is no statewide tally that measures the number of preschool spots available in various programs across the state and compares it to the number of preschool-age children. But a recent study in Los Angeles County found that there are only 38 preschool seats available for every 100 children aged 3 to 5 years old. For infants and toddlers, the statistics are even more daunting. There are only 7 seats available for every 100 children under 3 years old.

In low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latino families, the disparities are even more pronounced. That means some of the children in California who need early childhood education the most, according to researchers, aren’t getting it.

“Exposure to preschool is essential if these kids are going to be able to start kindergarten on par with middle-class white kids,” Fuller said.

That certainly holds true for the migrant children in the Central Valley program, said Stanislaus County’s Orvis-Cook.

“Our children and families deserve no less than the very best,” she said. “We’re dedicated to that.”