Today’s children of immigrants, nearly all of whom are US citizens, make up one-quarter of our future workforce. Yet, they are less likely than other children to participate in early education programs that can support their long-term development and productivity.
Historical barriers to preschool access, including language accessibility, cultural responsiveness, and affordability, have led many immigrant families to miss out on this important experience. Recent changes in immigration policy and enforcement complicate this picture. But new evidence from four communities shows that policymakers and teachers remain central in expanding preschool access for children of immigrants—and they can be successful in doing so.
I think preschool is very important to every single family…. Preschool is one of the foundations of education. If you’re building a house and your base is not that strong, it might not hold that much longer.
— Immigrant parent of a preschool student
Between November 2016 and February 2017, we visited four communities—Dearborn, Michigan; Atlanta, Georgia; King County, Washington; and Houston, Texas—that are closing gaps in access to preschool for children of immigrants. At each site, we spoke with preschool program administrators, school staff, parents of preschool-aged children, and community-based organizations involved in serving immigrant families. Based on these conversations, which you can read about in our new report and companion brief, we offer 10 recommendations for state and local policymakers working to expand preschool access for children of immigrants:
1. Building trust is essential. Parents seek safe and welcoming preschool options, and parents’ trust in programs grows when they are invited into classrooms, engaged in developing programming, and invited to help shape efforts to improve quality and expand access.
2. There is no one best approach. The programs we observed addressed multiple barriers to preschool access for children of immigrants, but the programs differed in which barriers they addressed and the strategies they adopted to do so. Solutions often involved policy innovation—such as flexible entry qualifications that allow immigrant educators to enter the classroom and then meet requirements over time—but programs also refined basic program features and resource allocations.
3. Start small. Though mature at the time of our study, all programs began with a small dedicated staff and a commitment to serving all children. As immigrant families enrolled, those parents became ambassadors for the programs, and immigrant enrollment increased rapidly.
4. Leverage all available resources. All study sites supplemented state prekindergarten funding with local school district funds. Some sites integrated resources available through Head Start and Title I, and some benefited from philanthropic gifts. Program administrators also leveraged staff and facilities from outside the prekindergarten system (e.g., from district departments for world languages or family engagement) to make the best use of prekindergarten dollars.
5. Preschool programs cannot do it alone. Partnerships are essential for initial program outreach and provide important supports for continued participation. Promising partners could come from other district and state education agencies, immigrant-serving community-based organizations, and other groups.
6. Support the whole family. Preschool focuses on the growth and development of young children, but the four sites reached out to parents and siblings as well. Staff connected families to community resources and collaborated with immigrant and refugee institutions.
7. Commit to continuous improvement. The study sites regularly gauged families’ satisfaction, adjusted program features, and sought new resources to meet evolving needs. Families could sense this commitment and felt welcome to participate in the process.
8. Leadership is key and can come from any level. This study focuses on school and district leaders, but state leadership in both education and immigration policy can shape families’ preschool experiences too. Classroom teachers also have a role to play in engaging children and parents, especially those who are among the first in their community to enroll.
9. Mind the gaps. Even sites with unusually high preschool participation among immigrant families have unmet need. New arrivals to the US often lack the social networks that share information about preschool. Families might learn about prekindergarten through elementary schools but miss out on enrollment for their firstborn. Waitlists observed in every site demonstrate uneven or insufficient capacity.
10. Consider preschool within the broader immigrant experience. This study was conducted during a period of changing immigration policy and enforcement. We observed uncertainty regarding these changes but could not gauge additional effects because of the timing of data collection. Given the importance of building trust, these changes are likely to shape future efforts to serve children of immigrants.
You’re trying to break barriers. It’s not a you. It’s not a me. It’s an us. And there’s a difference.
As preschool programs reach unprecedented levels of enrollment and funding, we offer these recommendations to inform the efforts of state and local policymakers working to address long-standing gaps in preschool access for children of immigrants. Our country’s future may well depend on their success.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.