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Researchers say preschool provides essential benefits, but Colorado kids have uneven access to it. Photo courtesy of Clayton Early Learning


Report: Achievement Gap Starts in Preschool

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Lorena Limón, who lives in the Ruby Hill neighborhood of southwest Denver, beat dismal odds to enroll her youngest son in a public preschool near her home.

An older son was on a preschool waiting list for two years; he went straight to kindergarten. Some programs in her neighborhood only offered half-day preschool; Limón doesn’t drive, so that would mean making a 20-minute walk each way, and then having little time for anything else before having to turn around and do it again.

But when her four-year-old was suspended, Limón took her youngest son out of school. (The school’s principal was unable to confirm this incident occurred, though she says the school does not generally suspend preschool-age students.) Limón felt her son was discriminated against—a white child he had tussled with wasn’t suspended—and that was a deal-breaker for her.

“Was it because he is Hispanic?” she wondered.

Limón’s son is now enrolled in kindergarten at a different school, and she has become a parent leader for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos. The organization, which has historically focused on children from kindergarten to high school, has begun to take a closer look at the gaps in education that start before kindergarten.

Children make huge strides in development and learning well before age five, and high-quality preschool can mean the difference between a student who starts kindergarten on track with his or her peers, and a child who may never catch up.

But while families living in Denver’s more affluent neighborhoods—Cherry Creek, Congress Park and Cheesman Park—enroll their kids in preschool at rates approaching 100 percent, the rate in poorer neighborhoods is far lower: in Sun Valley, 16 percent; in Westwood, 24 percent, according to the Denver Office of Children’s Affairs.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos last week released results of its survey of more than 300 residents of southwest Denver, who either had direct, recent experience with enrolling their children in preschool, or whose three- and four-year-olds were not attending preschool. Their survey respondents were roughly 90 percent Latino, and most were Spanish-speaking.

Their results debunked a prevailing myth that Latino families prefer to keep their kids at home with family members. Instead, they found that 45 percent of the respondents whose preschool-age kids weren’t enrolled in preschool said there was no availability in local facilities; some had long waiting lists, and others were simply full. Another 26 percent said that preschools weren’t conveniently located, while 19 percent cited poor quality as a reason for keeping their kids out of their local preschools.

Only eight out of 134 people surveyed said they were keeping their kids out of preschool because of a preference for other childcare arrangements.

“This is discrimination,” said Elodia Romero, a parent and organizer with Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, at a presentation of the organization’s survey results last week. “This is the start of the achievement gap.”

Susana Cordova, the acting superintendent of Denver Public Schools, was in attendance to give the official response at the Padres & Jóvenes Unidos event. She said that the report validated the work that the school district has been doing to expand preschool options in Denver, and showed that there was more to be done. A 2012 mill levy has supported the expansion of preschool programs in Denver, said Cordova, allowing the district to add 1,300 half-day slots.

Still, said Cordova, about 38 percent of kindergarten kids in Denver Public Schools didn’t attend any preschools.

Along with availability and quality, cost is also a barrier for many families. While the Denver Preschool Program, Colorado Preschool Program, Child Care Assistance Program and Head Start provide some help to some families, there are huge gaps in their assistance that make the $11,477 average annual preschool cost unaffordable to many.

Lack of language support also turns off some Hispanic parents, who said they want their children to be bilingual, and were discouraged by preschools that didn’t have Spanish-speaking teachers or taught only in English.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, which is a grantee of The Colorado Trust, has successfully pushed Denver Public Schools to improve the way its kindergarten through grade 12 teachers discipline students, advocating for administrators to minimize the use of suspensions, expulsions and police calls in order to shrink what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

But the organization has found that harsh disciplinary measures start early. How common is it for a three- or four-year-old to be sent home or told to never return? That’s hard to say; unlike elementary, middle and high schools throughout Colorado, preschools don’t have to report data on suspending and expelling preschool students.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos’ survey found that 41 percent of its respondents said their preschool was using harsh disciplinary practices like suspensions and expulsions “occasionally” or “frequently.”

While the report from Padres & Jóvenes Unidos focused on Denver, families living outside the city—especially in rural areas of Colorado—face their own barriers in accessing high-quality preschool. According to data from the Colorado Shines program, which assesses child care providers for things like classroom instruction and staff training, high-quality preschools are scattered unevenly around the state, leaving gaps in some neighborhoods and towns.

The Delta Head Start Center is a preschool for low-income kids in the city of Delta on the Western Slope. It receives a high-quality rating from Colorado Shines.

The program is just part-time at the moment, which the center’s director Melinda Castillo says places a burden on many of the families whose children are enrolled there. They’re planning to expand to a full-time program in the fall, which is likely to increase demand.

As it is, the Delta Head Start Center has a wait list of nine children.

Ten miles south of Delta in the town of Olathe, Marni Hernandez says her three-year-old son Kody missed the cutoff for enrolling in the local preschool this year; his September birthday was three days too late. The only other preschool in town serves just children of seasonal workers, not full-time residents. That means Kody will stay at home until the fall, and even then, the preschool’s part-time schedule will limit Hernandez’s employment options.

“I can’t even get a regular job until he’s in first grade,” she says.

Until then, Hernandez works to educate her son on her own, which often means trekking outside of Olathe for activities like story time at the library in Montrose. She takes him to the park, unless it’s too cold. Her husband speaks to both their kids in Spanish, and she works to reinforce their learning in both languages.

“They tell you from [age] one to three is the most important time for them to learn—and then there’s nowhere to go,” says Hernandez. “I’m not asking for a handout. I’m asking for a hand up.”

Kristin Jones

Freelance writer and editor
Denver, Colo.

See all stories by this author

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