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San Diego County, CA November 4, 2008 Election
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Closing The Latino Student Achievemnet Gap

By Pearl Quinones

Candidate for Board Member; Sweetwater Union High School District; Seat 2

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Closing the Latino student achievement gap

By Pearl Quinones November 16, 2007

Five years ago, every school district in San Diego County launched an initiative to close the achievement gap on the California High School Exit Exam for Latino students. Understanding that this was not just a problem for high schools, elected board members and superintendents in each of the 42 districts committed time, talent and resources to helping students pass the math portion of the exam.

By and large, the efforts have been a great success. County high schools have nearly erased the 25-point gap in math achievement between white and Latino students. What San Diego County educators have also determined, however, is that attention paid in the earliest grades + preschool and kindergarten + would produce even greater academic dividends for our schools and society.

At the recent National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) 3rd Annual National Summit on the State of Latino Education, my fellow NALEO delegates and I chose pre-K advocacy as a policy platform. By helping influence local, state and federal representatives to invest in universal access to quality preschool programs for Latino families, we could address the achievement gap when it is the smallest.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently funded a comprehensive study of demographics, socioeconomics and academic readiness of Latino children and found what we as educators have known for many years. Latino children enter kindergarten at a distinct disadvantage in recognizing letters + a pre-reading skill. The gap widens as students get older so that by the time Latinos are in the fourth grade, 80 percent of the achievement gap is a direct consequence of limited access to quality preschool.

As a dropout prevention specialist in the San Ysidro School District, I see what happens to children who don't begin school until first grade. They are constantly struggling in the younger grades and often find their way into my office by the sixth grade because they're losing hope.

There has been a growing sense that Latinos are reluctant to enroll their children in preschool. That couldn't be further from the truth. A Tomas Rivera Policy Institute survey last year asked Latino parents if they would enroll their children in preschool if it were available in their area. An astounding 97 percent said they would. What confronts many families, however, is the scarcity of high-quality, publicly funded programs in Latino communities. And when they do enroll in preschool, Latino children are more likely than their non-Hispanic peers to attend pre-K programs that have less-prepared teachers, less student diversity, fewer resources and larger class sizes.

While the lack of quality programs is a major issue, there are other significant hurdles for our Latino families. Many parents are unaware of existing programs. Many programs require that families document employment, income or citizenship + though it is illegal to deny students access to preschool on the basis of citizenship or legal status. And most programs are in English.

We understand the urgent need for students to learn English, yet we also understand the giant leaps in academic achievement for students who are fluent in two languages. Dozens of parents each year remain on waiting lists for elementary schools that offer dual-language programs for their English-speaking children. These parents understand the benefit of immersing their children in two languages and cultures. It is no different for Spanish-speaking parents.

We all benefit from eliminating the achievement gap. A 2005 report, the "Future of Children," found that if "Hispanic children's enrollment [in pre-K] rises from 40 percent to 60 percent to match that of white children, this amounts to closing between 6 percent and 26 percent of the [achievement] gap." High school graduation rates increase by as much as 29 percent and grade-retention rates are reduced by 44 percent. That's important to me as a member of the Sweetwater Union High School District School board.

San Diego County is making progress with its Preschool For All demonstration project, which provides free and effective pre-kindergarten programs to 4-year-olds living in Escondido, Lemon Grove, National City, San Ysidro, South Bay and Valley Center/Pauma. But it is not enough; we must cast the net wider.

Preschool and kindergarten are essential building blocks for our Latino children's academic success. More Latino children are entering our classrooms than any other ethnic group. We must do all we can to ensure these students are successful so that we all benefit.


Quinones is vice president of the Sweetwater Union High School District Board of Trustees.

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