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
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
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.
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