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Oklahoma Does it Right Again, This Time With Hispanic Children

By 2030, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They will be key members of the next generation.

Yet, nearly one-quarter of today's Hispanic women have less than a 9th grade education, according to the Census Bureau data. Deprived of their own chance at a good education, many of these women may feel overwhelmed or unaware of how to give their children a leg-up on learning. The achievements of a significant portion of the next generation - the adults who will keep our country moving forward in 2030 - will hinge on how well communities and educational institutions can support these women and their children.

These factors -- coupled with the challenges of coming to school not knowing English -- might seem enough to argue for enrolling these children into high-quality pre-K programs as soon as possible. But we've been missing solid research on whether pre-K can lead to any gains for this particular population.

Now we've got some. William T. Gormley, Jr., the Georgetown University professor who has been studying pre-k in Oklahoma, has honed his research to look at Hispanic children in the Tulsa Public Schools.

His latest study shows that Oklahoma's program is making a significant difference. The peer-reviewed study, published last month in Social Science Quarterly, compares children who enrolled in Tulsa's pre-K program in 2005 to those who didn't. To make sure the data wasn't tainted by parents' self-selection of preschool, he compared data on children whose only reason for not yet enrolling in preschool was their birthdate - they were just shy of 4 years old on the September deadline for enrolling.

The children coming out of pre-K were better at identifying words and letters, spelling and problem-solving than their counterparts of nearly the same age. The magnitude of the differences -- in statistics jargon, the "effect sizes" - turned out to be relatively large. "These are impressive and substantial learning gains," Gormley wrote.

Remember, however, that these are gains for the state-funded Oklahoma program alone - a program that is known for quality, with every class led by a college-educated teacher, early-childhood certified teacher. We don't know as much about potential benefits to Hispanic children in other pre-K programs that don't meet the same standards.

It's also worth noting that Hispanic parents across Tulsa enrolled their children in the pre-k programs at an unusually high rate, with 61 percent of Hispanic 4-year-olds in either the public schools' pre-k program or Head Start. In the past, Gormley said in an interview with Early Ed Watch, immigrant families have shown less likelihood to participate in pre-k programs because of either a lack of trust or strong support networks for child-rearing within their extended families.

"Many of these families are strong and intact and don't need to turn outside the family," Gormley said. "What's striking bout Tulsa is they have overcome the diffidence of Hispanic parents to put their 4 year olds in a pre-K program."

A policy brief on Gormley's results puts it this way: "Hispanic students benefit two ways in Tulsa: from a high-quality pre-K program and from relatively high participation rates."

It's interesting to dovetail these results with two recent reports from Zero to Three on early childhood and immigrant families. The Journal of Zero to Three dedicated its November 2008 issue to the subject. The organization has also published a new report, The Changing Face of the United States: The Influence of Culture on Child Development. Both make the case for being more culturally aware and thoughtful about including immigrant populations in plans for pre-K. More for your reading list.