Encouraging pre-K attendance among immigrant families

Encouraging pre-K attendance among immigrant families

(District of Columbia) One of the less visible fallouts from the aggressive anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration is the impact on early learners whose parents are in the country illegally, a new study suggests.

The report from the Urban Institute that looked at what some districts are doing to encourage families to participate in voluntary pre-K programs.

One discovery was the growing disconnect between what administrators assume are challenges for immigrant families and where parents actually need help in overcoming barriers.

Researchers found that often, schools focused on such things as translated curriculum materials, interpreters and bilingual staff—all things that can greatly support students. But services like transportation to and from school were far more important to undocumented parents fearful of venturing out for any reason.

“Because of the voluntary nature of pre-K, any issues that heighten fears or uncertainty among immigrant communities are going to affect the youngest children,” Erica Greenberg, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said in an interview. “They may value pre-K for their children, but the risk of driving them to school if the district isn’t providing transportation is just too high. It may be a risk they have to take for their third grader because of attendance or truancy policies, but it’s not one they have to take for their pre-K child.”

Authors of the report identified four districts throughout the country 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 U.S.-born parents: Dearborn, Michigan; Atlanta, Georgia; King County, Washington; and Houston, Texas.

As part of the study, researchers conducted individual and group interviews with 134 parents from immigrant families and 106 stakeholders across the four study sites between November 2016 and February 2017.

They found that transportation was a top priority for many parents, but service providers had mixed understandings of families’ transportation challenges. For example, one administrator responded that with public transportation readily available, getting from one side of town to the other shouldn’t be that difficult. But researchers noted that limited public bus and train services in the study sites, as well as language barriers and other factors, compounded the transportation challenges.

One reason that schools haven’t put more emphasis on providing transportation is because they assumed that parents wouldn’t take advantage of it, due to concerns about sending their young child on a bus without parental supervision. The study found otherwise.

In Atlanta and King County where busing was provided, parents generally made use of it options–again contrary to what service providers believe families needed most.

Overall, each of the four sites were found to have been successful in reducing barriers to preschool access for immigrant families, and often by employing similar practices.

All four communities benefited from robust approaches to translation, interpretation, and linguistically diverse staffing, authors of the report said. Most of these approaches served to improve parents’ understanding of pre-K options and help them enroll their children, but language access extended into the classroom in some cases, where bilingual teaching staff, curricula, and learning materials supported children’s language development.

All four locations also partnered with organizations to expand preschool access—including immigrant-serving community-based organizations, health providers, religious institutions and other education agencies.

Participation in high-quality pre-K programs has been shown improve a child’s rates of academic achievement–at least for a few years–and lessen the likelihood that a child will come into contact with the juvenile justice system, and require academic remediation or special education services.

For children of immigrants, a pre-K classroom may be the first place they’re surrounded by kids their own age and immersed in the English language, especially if they predominantly speak another language at home. While preschool obviously helps prepare all children academically for kindergarten, researchers point out that for immigrant children, it also prepares them for social and cultural differences.

“In general children from low-income immigrant families are more likely to grow up in less educated and more linguistically isolated homes, and so they’re starting kindergarten at a disadvantage,” Greenberg said. “It’s also a way to get them used to the routine of school–and particularly American school–to prepare them for the culture, relating to authority figures and peers, food, and practices that are intrinsic to high quality pre-K programs.”

To help immigrant families access district pre-K programs, authors of the report recommend school and district leaders work to build trust among parents and local immigrant communities, and be flexible in the various policies adopted and practices implemented.

Other recommendations outlined in the report include:

  • Committing to continuous improvement by regularly gauging families’ satisfaction, adjusting program features, and seeking new resources to meet evolving needs;
  • Supporting the whole family through partnerships that allow families to connect with community resources and immigrant and refugee institutions; and
  • Considering preschool within the broader immigrant experience, given that changes in state or federal policy are likely to shape future efforts to serve children of immigrants.