The children of immigrants need pre-kindergarten

Christelle Williams 8, who was born in Haiti, holds a U.S. flag following a citizenship ceremony at the old school house in old Sacramento in 2013. There are a growing number of children of immigrants in California schools.
Christelle Williams 8, who was born in Haiti, holds a U.S. flag following a citizenship ceremony at the old school house in old Sacramento in 2013. There are a growing number of children of immigrants in California schools. Sacramento Bee file

Across the U.S., we are witnessing two major trends involving children under age 5. First, more and more parents are sending their children to pre-kindergarten outside of the home. Second, more and more children are being born to immigrant parents.

There’s nothing inherently worrisome about either of these trends, except that they don’t converge. Despite new evidence underscoring the benefits of pre-kindergarten for immigrants’ children, many of whom are still learning English when they enter kindergarten, they are the least likely to be enrolled.

Due in part to more working mothers and changes to the economy, increasing numbers of parents send their 4-year-olds to “formal” center-based pre-kindergarten care, a category that includes state and private preschools and federal Head Start programs for low-income families. From 2001 to 2012, the percentage of children who attended state-funded pre-kindergarten care doubled. In contrast, fewer children remain in “informal” care, which includes staying at home with parents or relatives, with a sitter or in unlicensed settings.

Meanwhile, the largest growing segment of young children are from immigrant families – either as immigrants themselves or, more commonly, born here with immigrant parents. This isn’t news in California: School districts here serve both the greatest number and percentage of schoolchildren from immigrant families.

With these growing trends, however, there is an ever-growing disparity. Children in immigrant families are generally from low-income backgrounds with parents who lack English proficiency, have lower educational levels and less knowledge about the U.S. schooling system – factors that may present obstacles to their enrollment in formal pre-kindergarten.

Children from native-born families attend formal pre-kindergarten in droves and benefit from this extra year of a school-like environment. Children from immigrant families are more likely to stay at home or in the care of a relative. Already at risk of starting school behind their peers, they are becoming even more so by not attending formal preschool. Thus, a “school readiness gap” precedes the achievement gap.

With support from the University of California Center in Sacramento through the annual Kevin and Kim Bacon Award, I set out to determine what we know about the role that pre-kindergarten plays in preparing children in immigrant families to start school. I gathered and evaluated all findings from a decade’s worth of studies that included children from immigrant families and that examined formal vs. informal settings.

The findings were as crystal clear as they get in educational research. In more than 90 percent of studies, attending formal pre-kindergarten improved English proficiency and reading and math skills for children from immigrant families. Children who stayed in informal settings were not as prepared. In all studies, immigrant children gained social and emotional skills from being in formal pre-kindergarten.

This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a synthesis of this type has focused on this group of children. The result provides consistent and compelling evidence that attending formal preschool can boost levels of school readiness for children from immigrant families.

As the presence of this group of children in the school system grows, so too should a sense of urgency about preparing them to succeed.

Formal preschool doesn’t have to be out of reach for immigrant families. Gov. Jerry Brown’s new school funding formula provides supplemental funds for children who are still learning English and allows districts to spend the money on preschool. The Legislature has stated its intent to eventually make the state preschool program available to all low-income children, which would help many immigrant families.

Sacramento and other districts serving large numbers of children of immigrants now have more evidence of the wisdom of such choices.

Michael Gottfried is an assistant professor at the Gevirtz School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.