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Build preschools where Latinos live 

Updated: November 19, 2011 5:51PM

Elena Flores was raring to go to preschool this fall.

She wanted to be in school, just like her big brother. When he got a backpack, she had to have one, too.

Elena didn’t get her wish. The preschool was full. Her name’s on a waiting list.

I thought about Elena when I saw the report this week that Latino children in our state are half as likely to be enrolled in preschool as other ethnicities. Some 35 percent of Latino 4-year-olds attend preschool, according to a study authored by Bruce Fuller, director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California-Berkeley. In contrast, 66 percent of white, 63 percent of Asian and 54 percent of African-American 4-year-olds are in preschool.

Don’t misinterpret these numbers. They don’t mean there isn’t a desire by Latino families to put their young children in preschool. But like Elena, Latino children cannot go to preschool if there isn’t one nearby, or there isn’t room for them.

Actually, that our state has to step up its game in regard to preschool isn’t a new concern. The Illinois Facilities Fund has earmarked $45 million toward the building of new preschool facilities, according to the independent newsmagazine Catalyst Chicago. The need for bilingual education at a young age has been recognized, too. Illinois will begin new bilingual programs at the preschool level starting in 2014.

What this study shows is the importance of making sure some of these new preschool facilities are built in communities where there are large Latino populations, according to Bertha G. Magana, executive director of the Latino Education Alliance.

It also points out that Latino parents must get the message that preschool is important. That is something our schools can address.

When the Chicago Public Schools saw that too many students did not get to school on the first day, it decided to make sure parents knew why it was so important that their children were there. Through fliers, advertisements and plugs in the media, they told parents that student attendance impacted how much Chicago gets from the state. People even went door to door, telling parents: get your children to school so their schools don’tp lose money. That was a message any parent could understand, and first-day attendance grew.

Now, schools need to relay the message to Latino parents that preschool is important to their child’s educational success. Good early education gives children a solid foundation for their future learning. We have to help parents “become aware of the value preschool makes on their student’s success,” said Magana.

“By being in school they begin to value education early,” Magana said, which leads to all sorts of good things: less tardiness, better attendance, a desire to stay out of trouble and remain in school.

It’s equally important for schools to help parents realize that even if English is not their first language, they can make sure that their child does homework and comes to school prepared. Sometimes, if parents are new to this country, they aren’t familiar with the role parents play in education here. When schools provide a friendly environment, parents recognize that they and the schools should be partners working toward a child’s educational success.

Illinois — and Chicago in particular — is home to a substantial Latino population. If Chicago is to remain a world-class city and Illinois is to entice companies to bring their jobs here, we need to have an educated workforce. And that starts with preschool.

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