The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 8, 2011

Does Head Start Work for Hispanic Children?

September 8, 2011

The broad education community is currently trying to expand and reform early childhood education.  A key concern is reaching children from disadvantaged families, which most Americans agree should, along with all other children, be given the opportunity to get a high- quality education.  Access to early education is seen as a way to  help close the racial and social class achievement gaps, and, going a step farther, to  create a more productive and valuable workforce for tomorrow’s America.

The Head Start program has been trying to do this since 1964.  It specifically aims to help children from low-income families get better prepared for school.  Head Start’s effectiveness has been questioned many times, but research has repeatedly shown that the program does have positive effects on its participants.

Black children have for a long time composed the majority of Head Start participants, followed by a quickly growing population of Hispanic children.  These Hispanic participants may face certain obstacles (e.g., a language mismatch between the home and school, lower expectations from teachers, and monolingual Spanish-speaking parents’ inability to help with schoolwork and take part in school activities due to a language barrier, etc.) that black or white children don’t face.  If these obstacles aren’t addressed in the education program, Head Start’s full benefits won’t be realized.  Beyond that, no early education program can really be considered a success unless it meets the specific needs of all participating children.  Although Head Start does focus, to a certain extent, on multicultural principles, it is important to verify how Hispanic children’s particular backgrounds interact with a Head Start education.

For Head Start to have any effect on Hispanic children it must first reach them with its services.  But the numbers show that a high proportion of eligible Hispanic children don’t participate in Head Start.  In fact, the difference between eligible and participating children is highest for Hispanics than for blacks or whites.  This statistic brings into question whether information and availability of Head Start is distributed the same way into Hispanic communities as it is in other communities.  While, at the same time, the willingness of immigrant parents to enroll their children in a government program when there is a hostile climate surrounding immigrant families in the United States, may also help explain the low participation rate of Hispanic children.

It’s not just about providing an early childhood education program.  It’s also about getting the targeted group to participate and making the program effective for all its participants.

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