Most children of immigrants are US citizens, and they make up a growing share of the nation’s future workforce. Yet their enrollment in preschool—central to school readiness and success later in life—continues to lag behind that of their peers with US-born parents.
Understanding how to reduce barriers to preschool access for immigrant families is key to informing preschool programs and policies in states and communities nationwide. This study explores strategies in four communities with unusually high rates of enrollment among low-income immigrant families and negligible or nonexistent gaps in enrollment between children of immigrants and children of US-born parents.
We focus on children’s involvement in state-funded preschool initiatives, also known as prekindergarten, in Dearborn, Michigan; Atlanta, Georgia; King County, Washington; and Houston, Texas. We selected these communities to provide a range of perspectives, seeking to identify common themes and strategies as well as site-specific adaptations to preschool enrollment barriers.
Findings emerged across eight key themes:
- Parental knowledge and preferences. There are two main sources of parental knowledge of preschool options: (1) word of mouth via family members, friends, and neighbors, and (2) school and district outreach. Parents and stakeholders emphasized the importance of trusted sources in facilitating parental knowledge of prekindergarten. Once informed of their options, most parents we interviewed felt positively about early learning in general and local prekindergarten programs in particular. Parents cited their children’s growth and development as a key motivation for enrollment. Still, some parents shared concerns about program rigor and their children’s behavioral readiness for preschool.
- Language access. The prekindergarten programs in all four communities benefited from robust approaches to translation, interpretation, and linguistically diverse staffing. Most of these approaches served parents, whose knowledge of and preferences for preschool often hinged on understanding the available offerings in their native languages. In some communities, however, language access extended into the classroom, where bilingual teaching staff, curricula, and learning materials supported children’s first formal education experiences.
- Program logistics, including operating schedules, location, and transportation. The four study sites varied substantially in their program operating schedules, locations, and transportation options, reflecting trade-offs made regarding program design, resource investments, and community needs. All four sites overcame the logistical barrier of cost. Programs did not require tuition or fees, facilitating access for low-income families.
- Welcoming efforts. General and culturally tailored welcoming efforts were often important to immigrant families considering whether to enroll their children in prekindergarten. The study sites maintained bright, clean, and attractive facilities and offered activities designed to build relationships with families and sustain parent engagement. They also developed inclusive and culturally responsive staff recruitment and training activities and refined them so that teachers and other support personnel were prepared to partner with immigrant parents and their broader communities.
- Enrollment supports. Enrollment processes varied substantially across sites but commonly included application, registration, and waiting list procedures along with requirements for health checks and vaccination records. Parents and stakeholders reported that enrollment was straightforward and supported by program staff but might deter some families with low levels of literacy, misinformation about requirements, or undocumented or mixed immigration status.
- Program resources, financing, and leadership. Stakeholders in all four communities reported having sufficient resources to serve the children enrolled. They supplemented state prekindergarten allocations with funding from federal, local, or philanthropic sources. Still, waiting lists and uneven capacity observed in all sites suggest that resources still could not meet demand.
- Partnerships with organizations and agencies. The four study sites partnered with organizations and individuals to expand preschool access. A diverse array of agencies and organizations—including other education agencies serving children and parents, health providers, religious institutions, and immigrant-serving community-based organizations—partnered with prekindergarten providers, and stakeholders identified additional opportunities for collaboration through two-way referrals.
- Local, state, and national, immigration policy contexts. This study was conducted between November 2016 and February 2017. During this period of changing immigration policy and enforcement, parents and stakeholders expressed uncertainty and concern about rapidly changing immigration policy contexts and their potential to affect preschool enrollment. Stakeholders particularly noted growing fear among undocumented and mixed-status families. Prekindergarten administrators described the trust they had built with families and communities and their desire to maintain that trust. Together, administrators and other local stakeholders provided a sense of safety and inclusiveness.
Across the four communities, we find that prekindergarten programs succeeded in expanding access for low-income immigrant families. By improving the fit between programs and communities, stakeholders can provide a strong start for children of immigrants and become trusted institutions in immigrant communities. Findings from this study support recommendations for state and local policymakers working to expand preschool access for children of immigrants.