Photo: At right, Daniella de los Santos, three, plays with the other children at the Fresno County Office of Education Migrant Education Program in Parlier, Calif.
ORANGE COVE, Calif.--Gabriela Ramos had hardly knocked when four-year-old Fátima Martínez opened the front door of her family's home and ushered in her preschool instructor.
With a dimpled smile on her face, Fátima sat down at a miniature Disney princess-themed table in the middle of her family's living room. Ramos joined her, and launched into a bilingual lesson focusing on colors, shapes and animals.
Just a few feet away, Fátima's mother, María Martínez, a farmworker, sat at the edge of the couch. She smiled and nodded as Fátima matched pairs of shapes.
"Muy bien," Ramos said in an animated voice. "Good job, Fátima!"
Fátima spends just one hour a week with Ramos, a home-based preschool teacher with the Fresno County Office of Education's Migrant Education school readiness program. That one lesson -- which is packed with stories, English and Spanish vocabulary words, and arts and crafts -- could put Fátima on the path toward long-term educational success.
But despite the proven success of preschool programs like this one, poor access to them is dimming future prospects for many Latino children--and for the state's economy.
Toward a Global Workforce
Multiple studies have extolled the short- and long-term social and educational benefits of high-quality early childhood education. Experts say preschool attendance has the potential to close the achievement gap and help train a global, multilingual workforce.
But in California, young Latino are missing out on this lifelong asset. Although they make up more than half of all children under age five in the state, only 14 percent of them are enrolled in high-quality preschool programs, according to Preschool California.
Were it not for the unique preschool programs offered through Fresno County's migrant education division, children of migrant farmworkers -- like Fátima -- would face even greater challenges to accessing quality preschool programs, even though they might also have the most to gain from them.
Fresno County is home to more migrant students than any other region of the state. Of an estimated 16,000 migrant students in the county, about 2,000 of them are between the ages of three and five years old.
"Our program is the safety net that will try to reach those families and children ages three to five who have not accessed the regular preschool systems," said Robert Forbes, acting director of Fresno County Office of Education's migrant education program.
As Ramos read aloud, in Spanish, the children's book El Mitón (The Mitten,) Fátima held onto every word.
When Ramos asked her to identify the animals pictured in the book, Fátima used her small fingers, decorated with blue nail polish, to point out the critters and name them. Fátima's mother helped her identify some animals, too.
Fátima's chances of succeeding in school -- and beyond -- are significantly improved by participating in a high-quality preschool, like the home-based preschool run through Fresno County's migrant education program.
Reading, Math and Social Skills
In high-quality preschool programs, children learn the academic and social skills that will become the foundation of their education. They master pre-reading and pre-math skills, and also learn to pay attention to their teachers, follow instructions, and work both with others and independently.
"If children don't go to preschool, they enter kindergarten without knowing how to hold a pencil," said Ernesto Saldaña, state field director of Preschool California. "If a child starts kindergarten behind, they are usually not able to catch up."
Maybe most importantly, children in quality preschool programs are exposed to books -- lots and lots of them.
"If children are reading by third grade, then long-term they will be more successful in school, and less likely to drop out," said Bernice Hostetter, area coordinator for the Fresno County Office of Education's migrant education program.
Long-term studies have shown that students who attend a quality preschool are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and achieve a higher-paying job. Experts have also linked enrollment in preschool to fewer special-education placements, reduced social welfare program use--and less crime.
Susan De La O-Flores exemplifies the effectiveness of migrant preschool programs.
She grew up at the Raisin City Migrant Camp and has fond memories of preschool -- of fingerpainting on large pieces of paper, singing educational songs and playing on the monkey bars and in the sandbox.
Her positive experience in the program inspired her to pursue a career in education.
"My role models were all my teachers there," said De La O-Flores, a graduate of California State University, Fresno, and the daycare coordinator of the Parlier Migrant Child Care Center.
Teachers, she said, “were the only [professionals] I was really around, besides my dad and my mom. I got to see the influence they had on all of us -- the children, the whole community."
High Cost and Waiting Lists
Too frequently, though, Latino children don't have access to these high-quality programs, due to their high cost, or long waiting lists.
Children of migrant families face even greater barriers to accessing such programs, said Forbes, of the county's migrant program. In Fresno County, about 90 percent of migrant students are Latino, and the remainder are mostly Hmong.
For families living in migrant camps, or in the county's rural communities, it can be difficult or impossible to transport children to a preschool program -- especially early in the morning before work, Forbes said. Migrant families new to the community might also be distrustful or unaware of programs, despite their significant benefits
Migrant children are often raised in "environments that are not language-rich," Forbes said. Their families tend to travel with little more than basic necessities, so children might have limited exposure to books or other forms of educational media. This can delay students' ability to read, setting them on the path toward academic trouble.
Also, Latino migrant students often speak only Spanish at home. If they are not exposed to English in preschool, children could enter kindergarten without understanding basic classroom instructions, such as "let's line up" and "raise your hand."
"When the language is not there, it is hard for them to figure out what is going on," said Gudelia Sandoval, a former migrant student, who is now principal at César E. Chávez Elementary School in Parlier.
Preschool, however, gives kids a head start on becoming bilingual, she said.
"Once they start learning that, that alone helps them out to succeed in school and to be more comfortable," she said.
Books for Migrant Children
Children at the Parlier Migrant Child Care Center -- a migrant preschool program located within a farm labor center -- immerse themselves in hundreds of pieces of literature before entering kindergarten.
With the support of the Reading is Fundamental program children can take books home and begin building their own small book collection.
Through the home-based preschool program, bilingual teachers strive to create an educational environment inside the homes of migrant families.
They bring books into families' homes, and teach parents -- even those who can't read -- how to enjoy a book with their children. Parents learn how to ask open-ended questions about stories, and develop kids' vocabulary.
At the end of each lesson, students gets to choose a book from their teachers' collection to keep for the week.
On a Thursday in January, Fátima selected La Princesa y el Guisante (The Princess and the Pea.)
Since November, when they began the home-based preschool program, María Martínez has seen her daughter blossom. Fátima now recognizes letters and shapes, said Martínez, who has a sixth-grade education.
Martínez hopes her four-year-old follows in the educational footsteps of her older brother, who graduated from an Oklahoma university, and not her own path.
"I don't want her to work in the fields like we do," Martínez said in Spanish.
The Latino achievement gap could see significant improvement, if more migrant students and Latino children -- like Fátima -- enroll in early childhood education programs.
According to Preschool California, the Latino dropout rate in the state stands at 27 percent, compared to 21.5 percent overall.
However, by enrolling in quality preschool programs, Latino students could set their educational and professional careers on a strong path. Then, said Saldaña of Preschool California, Latino students' linguistic and cultural skills could become assets for the state and country.
In an area like the San Joaquín Valley -- where 19 percent of students within the Fresno County Office of Education are English-language learners -- "How do we tap into that fantastic asset and build that out," Saldaña asked?
"California has a unique opportunity to be a leader in the nation on this," he said. "It can definitely start in the preschool and early learning environment."
With the support of the migrant preschool program, Fátima could grow up to be a bilingual member of the global workforce. But that is many years away.
"Mama, I'm hungry," the four-year-old declared, at the end of her preschool lesson.
This story was supported by a reporting grant from New America Media and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
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