Criado en Chicago: Patterns of Hispanic Participation in Chicago’s Early Education Programs

Blog Post
April 25, 2017

Chicago’s Hispanic population currently ranks among the largest for US metropolitan areas, with over two million Hispanic residents (over one-fifth of the total population). Nearly ten percent of this population is under the age of five, accounting for over one-third of all children under age five in Chicago. As national assessments continue to document an achievement gap for Hispanic children (in Chicago and beyond), school districts in cities with large population of Hispanic children, like Chicago, are constantly in search of ways to better serve these students.

Chicago Pop Map.png

Source: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, UVA Racial Dot Map

Many have turned to early education programs to expand opportunity for all students. Research suggests that high-quality early childhood education (ECE) can be an effective tool for closing achievement gaps — particularly for Hispanic children.

But children only benefit from programs they attend. Understanding what might influence program participation could help cities better provide early childhood programming. In a brief released today, Abt Associates researchers working with the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families explore low-income Hispanic families’ participation in ECE programs across the city. They specifically set out to answer three main questions:

1) How many Hispanic children participate in publicly funded ECE programs?
2) Do participation rates differ between Hispanic and non-Hispanic children from low-income families?
3) Do participation rates differ among Hispanic children (i.e. based on factors like home language, parent nativity, or community characteristics)?

Overall Program Participation

One of the study’s more surprising results revolved around participation rates. Studies have often shown that Hispanic families are less likely to enroll their children in ECE programs than non-Hispanic families. In the Abt study, however, researchers found that 83 percent of low-income Hispanic children participate in some form of publicly funded ECE programming. This rate is slightly higher than figures reported in previous studies. However, participation rates for Hispanic children in the study were still lower than for non-Hispanic children (83 percent vs. 85 percent for all ECE and 70 percent vs. 75 percent for center-based care specifically).

Critically, these gaps closed — and even reversed — when the researchers imposed statistical controls to take other variables into account (i.e. family and neighborhood characteristics).With these factors held constant, they found that the study’s low-income Hispanic children were actually more likely to participate in ECE programs than the study’s low-income non-Hispanic children. Specifically, Hispanic children had a significant, four percentage point higher probability of participation overall. For specific programs, researchers found Hispanic children had a five percentage point higher probability of participating in Chicago’s Head Start programs and an eight percentage point higher probability of participation in Preschool for All (PFA) programs than non-Hispanic children.

The study’s results also reveal differences in participation among Hispanic children based on home language, parent nativity, and community characteristics. Overall, 85 percent of Hispanic, Spanish-speaking households participated in programs, compared to 74 percent of Hispanic, non-Spanish speaking households. Researchers suggest this difference might be driven by higher participation in Head Start and PFA programs by Hispanic, Spanish-speaking families. Additionally,  children with one or more parents born outside of the US have higher participation rates (86 percent) than children with US native-born parents (82 percent).

How to Better Serve Hispanic Families: Lessons from Chicago

Surprising findings demand explanation. The researchers suggest that some elements of Chicago’s ECE system may contribute to the city’s relatively high rates of Hispanic families’ ECE participation:

  • Legislation for English Language Learners (ELLs): Public preschools in Illinois are required to provide transitional bilingual programs;

  • Immigration Services: The Illinois Department of Human Services’ New Americans Initiative coordinates integration services for immigrants throughout the state;

  • PFA Program Design: The program was specifically designed to serve low-income students and also has specific target criteria for non-native English speakers, which, in tandem, might increase the participation rates of low-income Hispanic families’ children

  • Availability of Rich Data Sources: The city of Chicago has a rich, integrated data system that links records across programs like Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, and Child Care Assistance.  Comprehensive and meaningful data collection can help cities better track, understand, and improve services.

As interesting as these findings are, they only capture a snapshot in time. How Chicago, and Illinois, continue to serve Hispanic families in the future remains to be seen. Illinois is still reeling from the consequences of a major budget crisis. A recent case study of care in Illinois by New America reveals that state budget cuts are driving changes to program eligibility requirements and funding, which are harming the families who need care the most — like many of the low-income Hispanic families in the above study.

Based on demographics, children from these families will make up a huge portion of the city’s future population and workforce. Chicago needs them to flourish. Maintaining access to high quality early childhood education is a great place to start.


This post comes from New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”