An Early Start for Children of Immigrants

By Michelle Chen Aug 08, 2009

The Obama administration wants to ramp up early childhood education, as part of its effort to narrow achievement gaps later in life. But universal preschool may not mean universal access for immigrant families. In an exploratory study, the Urban Institute examined the experiences immigrant families in Chicago under Illinois’s “preschool for all" initiative (PFA), which aims to provide Pre-K to all 3- and 4-year olds. Researchers found intriguing patterns, and differences, in the challenges faced by Pakistani and Nigerian families dealing with a mix of cultural. social and economic factors. Though both Nigerian and Pakistani families placed similarly high value on early education, the Pakistani families were more likely enroll in school-based programs, while the Nigerian families were more often introduced to preschool through community-based child care. (This could be due in part to the fact Nigerian parents were more likely than Pakistani parents to be working full or part time, so they sought programs that ran on a workday, rather than school schedule.) The barriers the families encountered differed according to the type of care they chose:

Pakistani families, who were far more likely to enroll their children in the school?based programs, spoke much more about not being able to get into a school, and facing waiting lists—a perspective corroborated by the school?based providers we talked with. Nigerian respondents were less likely to report such problems… the Nigerian respondents were much more likely to talk about whether they could find the right child care program for them, whether they could afford it, and whether they could obtain subsidies to pay for it, rather than any problem accessing PFA.

Transportation was an additional hurdle for Pakistani parents seeking to access school-based programs. Researchers pointed out that this posed a challenge for immigrant communities that are geographically isolated, “have less access to cars or public transportation, or may face language barriers in accessing transportation schedules.” It seems the two groups of families faced two parallel types of barriers: Schools may provide pre-K programs as part of a broader service array, but access is constrained by limited space and informal challenges like transportation and language issues. Preschool that is folded into community-based daycare programs could be a more accessible and convenient option for many, but not for parents who can’t afford to place their kids in quality child care programs. As the Applied Research Center documented in “Underprotected, Undersupported,” low-income children of color are at risk of exclusion from quality early education due to high costs and a shortage of well-regulated programs. While universal Pre-K is a laudable goal, it may elude many immigrant families who lack equal access to the institutions that serve as gatekeepers to these resources. Considering that programs for English Language Learners are often ineffective and underresourced, giving young immigrant children a head start is one critical way to keep them from falling behind later on. Image: Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Centers