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Early Education Programs and Children of Immigrants: Learning Each Other's Language

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Document date: August 31, 2010
Released online: August 31, 2010


Children from immigrant families are the fastest growing group of children in the United States. High-quality child care and early education opportunities will be critical to these children's success in school and in life. Yet, the early experiences of children in immigrant families are as diverse and varied as immigrant families themselves. While many immigrant families face numerous barriers to accessing high-quality child care and early education for their young children, these barriers are not insurmountable. The paper discusses state and local solutions to improving access for immigrant families and specific strategies and collaborations among providers, policymakers, and immigrant-serving organizations.

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Child care and early education have been consistently in the news in recent months. The president has identified improved access to high-quality early childhood programs as a cornerstone of his efforts to both improve the economy and radically change outcomes for vulnerable children and families. Economists, governors, state legislators, pediatricians, and other leaders all call for increased investment in early childhood programs to ensure children arrive at school with the tools they need to learn and to thrive. Administration proposals, from Race to the Top to the Promise Neighborhoods, speak of the need to address early childhood education in state and local reform efforts.

These public statements have created a sense of excitement in the early childhood field. At the same time, they have raised significant questions about what programs successfully change the odds for vulnerable populations, including young children of immigrants. One in four children under age 6 in the United States has a parent who was born outside the country, with great variation in their country of origin.1 Children of immigrants are 25 percent of preschool-age children not in school and 22 percent of those in kindergarten and preschool (Fortuny et al. 2009).

More than one in four children under age 6 lives in households that speak a language other than English (Capps et al. 2005). Many of these children will enter school as English language learners (ELLs), also called dual language learners (DLL). The term ELL typically refers to individuals learning English as their second language. In reality, there is great diversity in the language abilities among young ELLs. Some children grow up in households only hearing and speaking a non-English language, while others learn English simultaneously with another language and are on a path to become bilingual in two (or sometimes more) languages. Young children with less exposure to English in their earliest years will be challenged by their language skills upon school entry. Research shows that ELLs score lower on measures of academic achievement than English speakers. This achievement gap begins early and persists throughout the elementary and secondary years.2

Emerging research finds that quality early education can provide significant benefits to children of immigrants and ELLs. Successful early education interventions are comprehensive, providing educational, health, mental health, and family support services, and they sustain these comprehensive supports and services during early elementary years.3 Early education also can address school readiness and English language acquisition, enabling children to enter kindergarten with more advanced English skills and, thus, better preparing them to learn and to succeed (Gormley et al. 2004; Magnuson, Lahaie, and Waldfogel 2006; Rumberger and Tran 2006). Participation in early education may also ease integration for immigrant families into American society and its education system.

Despite the opportunity of early education, immigrant families face tremendous barriers to accessing quality programs.4 Data suggests that ELLs and children of immigrants are less likely to participate in all types of early education programs, including pre-kindergarten programs (Matthews and Jang 2007). Forty-three percent of children of immigrants between age 3 and age 5 are in parental care or do not have a regular care arrangement. The same is true of only 29 percent of children of U.S.-born citizens. Center-based care is the most common arrangement among all children age 3 to 5 in nonparental care, but it is less common for children of immigrants than for children of U.S.-born citizens (32 percent compared to 39 percent; see figure 1).5 Policies can address access barriers to services and ensure that children of immigrant families can reap the potential benefits of high-quality services in the earliest years.

(End of excerpt. The full report is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Education | Immigrants

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