The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 21, 2016

Fulfilling the promise of preschool in Silicon Valley

Researchers and policymakers agree: access to high-quality early care and education programs is important to children’s readiness for school and success later in life, particularly for children from low-income families. Yet these children enroll in high-quality preschool programs significantly less often than other children do. Why? And what can we do to help them get a stronger start?

To help answer those questions, our team studied preschool enrollment patterns in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, the two counties that make up Silicon Valley in California. While Silicon Valley is known for its tech-related innovation and wealth, it is also home to 50,000 low-income children (those with incomes below 200 percent of poverty) who could benefit from high-quality early care and education. As is true in other parts of the country, these children are less likely to be enrolled in preschool. Compared with their peers nationwide, however, they are far more likely to be children of immigrants.

Because of the specific challenges facing children from low-income immigrant families, we investigated the barriers that keep them from participating in higher-quality preschool. We explored these barriers—and strategies for overcoming them—through interviews with more than two dozen experts and stakeholders in early care and education and immigrant-serving organizations in Silicon Valley. Though this region is, in some ways, unusual in the size and diversity of its low-income immigrant population, our research yields important insights for other parts of the country experiencing demographic change.

What are the barriers to higher-quality preschool participation for low-income immigrant families in Silicon Valley?  

Some preschool participation barriers apply to low-income families in general, but come with added difficulties for low-income immigrant families, including

  • limited knowledge of early care and education options in the community, which can be compounded by language and literacy barriers for parents with limited English proficiency;
  • high costs of care that make even some publicly funded programs unattainable for struggling families;
  • substantial early education supply and capacity constraints given the high cost of living and shortage of appropriate facilities in Silicon Valley;
  • burdensome eligibility and enrollment processes for publicly funded early care and education, which can be compounded by language and literacy barriers for parents with limited English proficiency;
  • location and transportation challenges stemming from Silicon Valley’s size and its underdeveloped public transportation infrastructure; and
  • program hours and schedules that are not flexible enough to meet many low-income families’ needs.

Beyond issues common to low-income families, respondents identified additional barriers that pose specific challenges to low-income immigrant families in Silicon Valley, such as

  • distrust of government institutions among undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families;
  • parental preferences for early care and education, which may be shaped by both unfamiliarity with US approaches to preschool and limited trust in existing programs; and
  • linguistic and cultural sensitivities that make programs more welcoming for families from common linguistic and cultural groups but less responsive to the needs of families from smaller immigrant populations.

These barriers often operate simultaneously in the lives of immigrant families and can interact to shape their low preschool participation patterns. In turn, these interactions provide important context for stakeholders interested in supporting preschool enrollment and attendance.

What could help overcome barriers to preschool participation?

Our interviews revealed a wide-ranging set of strategies for overcoming barriers to preschool participation, including:

  • a new push for affordability that expands low-cost or free services;
  • improved and targeted outreach, with a focus on multilingual translation and culturally relevant messaging;
  • simplified early care and education enrollment requirements and additional support for eligibility determination and enrollment, including a targeted effort to reduce language and literacy barriers;
  • targeted investments to increase the number and enrollment capacity of affordable, higher-quality preschools; and
  • enhanced professional development around cultural and linguistic sensitivity.

Stakeholders also suggested connecting with community partners who are well positioned to help improve preschool participation among low-income immigrant families. These include health providers, WIC offices, churches, legal services organizations, higher education institutions, workforce development programs, trusted neighborhood and community groups, and the rich set of early care and education providers that already serve many families with young children. Together, these organizations can help expand access to and participation in higher-quality early learning opportunities so that all children have the opportunity for a strong start in life.

In this April 14, 2014 photo, preschool teacher Arene Galirza, left, a 4-year-old student color a rabbit-shaped paper cutout at Community Day Preschool of Garden Grove, in Garden Grove, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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