Migrant program offers lessons for reaching Latino preschoolers

teacher reading to children

Teacher Gabriela Mora reads Los Tres Cerditos, or The Three Little Pigs, to her Migrant Head Start class. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

HUGHSON – Long before President Obama triggered a new national interest in universal preschool earlier this year, a Central Valley-based Head Start program for children of migrant workers has been breaking down barriers that have kept Latino families out of early learning programs.

Data suggests that Latino children, who now make up more than half of children under 5 years old in California, have historically enrolled in early education programs at lower rates than their peers in other ethnic groups.

“We know from 20 years of research that a lot of Latino parents prefer to use home-based care, and that preschools appear to be excessively formal and sometimes not inviting institutions” to those parents, said University of California, Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, who has spent years studying early education issues in the Latino community.

“Formal” and “not inviting” are not terms that could be used to describe the child development center in Hughson, a small agricultural community nine miles southwest of Modesto. Four portable classrooms sit facing a play area with a jungle gym and a swing set. On a recent morning, the center was filled with 52 children ranging in age from newborn to 5 years old.

One of the reasons parents give for feeling welcome at the center is relatively simple: Spanish is spoken here.

And it’s not just that an effort is made to communicate with parents in Spanish, but also that children are instructed in both Spanish and English.

In the preschool classroom at the Hughson center, 3- and 4-year-olds sat in a circle on the rug listening to teacher Gabriela Mora reading the story of the three little pigs, or los tres cerditos. The kids were glued to the drama of the huffing and the puffing and the blowing down of houses. Mora was reading in Spanish, but when she paused to ask questions, kids answered in both languages.

Que hicieron Paco y Pascual?” Mora asked her students in Spanish. Translation: “What did Paco and Pascual do?” Asking open questions about what characters have done or what is about to happen is an effective way to engage young children in reading, Mora said later.

El lobo va a venir y va a soplar asi: Pfft!” responded Azul Ontiveros, puffing out her cheeks and blowing down an imaginary house.

Muy bien!” Mora praised Azul. Turning the page to a drawing of a brick house, Mora pointed to the brightly colored door. “Que color es?” she asked.

“Yellow!” called out one boy.

“Yellow, yes,” Mora said. “Que color es?” she asked again, pointing at the grass.

Verde!” called out a girl, using the Spanish word for “green.”

Si,” Mora said, “verde.”

little children play basketball

Students in the state preschool program, located in the classroom next to Migrant Head Start, play on the Hughson CDC playground. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

As is typical in classrooms for young children, nearly every item in the room is labeled to help kids associate words with objects. But at Hughson, the labels are in both English and Spanish. For example, the door is marked as both “door” and “la puerta.”

The Hughson center is part of a network of Head Start programs called Central California Migrant Head Start, which runs more than 50 centers and serves more than 3,100 children in Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and Santa Cruz counties.

“It’s not that English language development isn’t a priority,” said Tony Jordan, the program administrator for Central California Migrant Head Start. “It is.”

But Jordan said learning a second language is easier for young children if they can first develop a wide vocabulary and basic literacy skills in their first language.

Aggressive outreach to parents and a focus on hiring Spanish-speaking staff mean the program has no trouble filling its seats. There’s even a year-round waiting list that climbs into the many hundreds during peak harvest seasons.

Getting families to take advantage of this program means active recruitment, said Janet Orvis-Cook, the executive director of child and family services for Stanislaus County Office of Education, the umbrella organization for the migrant program.

“We go where the families are,” Orvis-Cook said. “We go to the church, to flea markets, to the farmers and to labor contractors. Out in the fields they wear bandanas to keep the sweat off, so we have bandanas that have our name and all our phone numbers.”

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services named the Central California Migrant Head Start program a Center of Excellence. It was the only migrant program in the country to earn the award, which is awarded on the basis of “long-standing and consistent records of implementing exemplary services and demonstrating positive outcomes for children and families.”

To qualify for a spot in Migrant Head Start, families must earn at least 50 percent of their income from agricultural work, have moved at least once in the last two years and have an annual income below the federal poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four. The program is free to those who qualify and costs an average of $8,776 per child annually depending on the exact program. For example, some programs offer half-day care, while others offer full-day care.


Many of the labels in Migrant Head Start teacher Gabriela Mora’s classroom are in Spanish. This one, which reads “Nuestra Cultura,” means “Our Culture.” Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

Berta Sanchez of nearby Denair has two children, both of whom have attended full-day programs at the Hughson center. Sanchez, who works at a nearby plant nursery, said she first heard about the program when a recruiter knocked on her door. Her daughter Sandra, now 3, was only 6 months old at the time, but she enrolled her older son. Sanchez says her son is doing so well in elementary school that he recently earned an academic award and Sandra is now enrolled in Mora’s class.

“My daughter knows her ABCs, she knows the song about the ‘little star’ and she can write her name,” Sanchez said in Spanish with obvious pride in her child’s progress at the center.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama called for universal preschool for 4-year-olds and has continued to press the issue since then.

The demand for more subsidized preschool spots is substantial. The two largest free public preschool programs operating in California now, state-funded preschool and federally funded Head Start, are unable to serve all the children whose family incomes make them eligible to attend.

In fact, Head Start programs in California are currently serving only about 60 percent of eligible children, according to the California Head Start Association.

There is no statewide tally that measures the number of preschool spots available in various programs across the state and compares it to the number of preschool-age children. But a recent study in Los Angeles County found that there are only 38 preschool seats available for every 100 children aged 3 to 5 years old. For infants and toddlers, the statistics are even more daunting. There are only 7 seats available for every 100 children under 3 years old.

In low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latino families, the disparities are even more pronounced. That means some of the children in California who need early childhood education the most, according to researchers, aren’t getting it.

“Exposure to preschool is essential if these kids are going to be able to start kindergarten on par with middle-class white kids,” Fuller said.

That certainly holds true for the migrant children in the Central Valley program, said Stanislaus County’s Orvis-Cook.

“Our children and families deserve no less than the very best,” she said. “We’re dedicated to that.”


Filed under: Early Learning, Head Start, High-Needs Students, Reforms, Testing and Accountability

Tags: , ,


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Policy

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers.

  • To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective.
  • Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to.
  • EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and offensive comments.
  • EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.
  • Please limit comments to 250 words to prevent comment clutter; if you intend to say more please link out to a place that contains your full comment.
  • Comments with more than one link automatically enter moderation. Comments from new commenters are automatically moderated.
  • Repeated violation of this comment policy will lead to a warning. Continued violations will lead to a ban.

8 Responses to “Migrant program offers lessons for reaching Latino preschoolers”

EdSource does not track who "likes or dislikes" a comment. We only track the number of likes and dislikes.

  1. XYZ on Apr 26, 2013 at 4:12 pm04/26/2013 4:12 pm

    • 000

    How about Planned Parenthood services near these schools?

  2. Paul on Apr 6, 2013 at 11:02 am04/6/2013 11:02 am

    • 000

    There are plenty of people who “pay no tax” despite earning hundreds of times what migrant workers earn. Can you say “estate tax exclusion”, “1031 exchange”, “home mortgage interest deduction”, “exclusion on gain from sale of primary residence”, etc., etc.? I reject any claim that migrant workers are the ones who are bankrupting the United States.

    “Assimilation” is a strong word, and though I wouldn’t go so far, I do agree that parents and children who are newcomers should place a priority on learning English. (I also believe that people should postpone parenthood until they can afford a substantial share of the expenses involved in raising a child.)

    Solid bilingual education programs achieve excellent results, in part by taking advantage of “positive transfer” for aspects of the first and second languages that are consistent. There are many similarities between Spanish and English.

    On the other hand, many bilingual teachers are hired because they happen to speak Spanish, not because they have strong linguistic knowledge. A teacher with poor linguistic knowledge would not be able to systemically bridge the gap between Spanish and English. For example, where Spanish spelling is straightforward, there are numerous variations in the spellings of long vowel sounds in English. This affects writing, for older children, but it also affects reading, for younger children.

    I’ve met more than a few holders of the Spanish Bilingual Authorization (formerly the Spanish BCLAD Credential) whose linguistic knowledge is deficient. Some possess neither an academic language register in Spanish nor an academic register in English. (To understand the issue, look up “BICS versus CALP”.) Bilingual certification places far more emphasis on cultural knowledge and theories of bilingual education than it does on linguistics. Culture matters — we see in this article that the preschool’s culturally sensitive practices attract families — but this is only a starting point.

    BCLAD is for K-12 teachers; certification requirements for preschool teachers are less stringent. So, much depends on the particular academic background of the person at the front of that preschool classroom. Here again, the teacher featured in the article is clearly a star, with her bilingual labels and her questioning strategies.

    Far from bankrupting us, bilingual preschool is a case where recruiting and training exceptional teachers, and compensating them as such, would pay big dividends for the United States.

  3. Regis on Apr 4, 2013 at 7:38 am04/4/2013 7:38 am

    • 000

    navagio, we’ve navigated this discussion before, but I still find it amazing. This is why we’re broke. They talk about the program being ‘free’ but there’s no such thing. The money comes from somebody or it’s borrowed to be paid back later.

    Let’s look at the cost, $8,776 dollars, per child annually. You multiply that by the typical Hispanic demographic of nearly three children (we’ll call it three for this exercise) and you have a cost of over $26K a year to the taxpayer! These migrants pay little if any taxes and in many cases, if they are legal, they actually get an income credit.

    And in answer to your question about the disparities, I believe an excerpt from the article accomplishes this: “Her daughter Sandra, now 3, was only 6 months old at the time, but she enrolled her older son”. So that’s two and a half years, but now let’s look at another excerpt: “My daughter knows her ABCs, she knows the song about the ‘little star’ and she can write her name,” Sanchez said in Spanish with obvious pride in her child’s progress at the center”. And Mom is STILL speaking spanish only!

    Obviously, the assimilation process is not working here and it is unlikely that it will, because a picture is worth a thousand words. Please note the picture with the Mexican and Texas flag (Don’t see an American flag here…) and the tag with the words “Nuestra Cultura” or “Our Culture”. There lies the biggest, most obvious roadblock to assimilation. As an Immigrant myself, speaking a foreign language when my family came to California, my parents biggest desire was to live the American Dream, assimilate and become Americans. Period. I’m not a ‘French Canadian-American’ and we left our culture and country behind to become Americans and we’ve succeeded quite well.


    • navigio on Apr 4, 2013 at 8:19 am04/4/2013 8:19 am

      • 000

      Regis, we are broke because of corruption and greed, not because of latino preschoolers.

      The article talked about the disparity between preschool spots and child population, and gave specific numbers for LA county as a whole, then claimed in concentrated latino neighborhoods there are even fewer options. I just wanted to understand how different those environments actually are.

      My guess is the picture was intentionally taken in a way to elicit responses like yours..

      • Lillian Mongeau on Apr 4, 2013 at 11:24 am04/4/2013 11:24 am

        • 000

        Regarding the photograph of the bulletin board:

        This is a zoomed in shot that does not show the entire board. As mentioned in the article, many things in the classroom were labeled in both English and Spanish and this photo was meant to illustrate that practice. If I remember correctly, the words on the left side of the globe, which you can see the right edge of in the picture, read, “Our Culture.” The flags and the hand prints were meant to represent the many cultures the children in the classroom identified with.

        Take from that what you will, I just wanted to be clear that the photo was taken as a news photo to illustrate what was being discussed in the article, not with the intention to provoke any specific response.

  4. navigio on Apr 2, 2013 at 8:21 am04/2/2013 8:21 am

    • 000

    In low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latino families, the disparities are even more pronounced.

    Can you be more specific?


    • Lillian Mongeau on Apr 4, 2013 at 11:18 am04/4/2013 11:18 am

      • 000

      Sorry its taken me a few days to respond to your question, navigio.

      In response to your original post, which quoted my story and asked a question:

      “‘In low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latino families, the disparities are even more pronounced.’

      Can you be more specific?”

      I was specifically referring to low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles County and pointing out that many of those have a high concentration of Latino families. I did not intend to imply that specifically the neighborhoods with more Latino families were less likely than other low-income neighborhoods in the area to have preschool seats. My apologies if my wording was unclear, I can see now that it may have been.

      Here is the link to SaveMySeatLA.org which shows preschool availability by neighborhood in L.A. County: http://www.savemyseatla.org/

      • navigio on Apr 4, 2013 at 12:19 pm04/4/2013 12:19 pm

        • 000

        Thank you for your response Lillian. Yes, you are right, that is what the wording appears to be saying. And thanks for the link. Looking quickly, the data seems to show some interesting trends, though it appears unlikely to be able to tell a story about latino concentrations specifically. And thanks for the article. :-)

Template last modified: