Today’s Chicago Tribune continues its recent census coverage with a story on the surging numbers of Latino preschoolers throughout the city and its surrounding suburbs. (Full disclosure: My son is one of them.) Within Chicago proper, just over 40 percent of children under age five are Latino. The recent census data confirms a local trend that demographers have been watching over the past few years: More Latinos are moving from Chicago to the suburbs, including new immigrants who now are bypassing Chicago altogether in favor of suburban locales. Today’s story notes that in over 30 Chicago-area suburbs, more than half of preschool-age children are Latino. In the western suburbs of Cicero and Melrose Park, that figure rises to more than 80 percent.
The article also highlights the scramble Latino parents are facing to find preschool programs. El Hogar de Nino, an early childhood development center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, now has a six-month wait list and families from surrounding neighborhoods like Little Village and the even more middle-class Bridgeport are clamoring to get their children in. The article cites statewide stats showing that while more than half of both white and African-American children attend preschool, only 35 percent of Latino children do so. They got a great quote from a mother whose children attend El Hogar de Nino: “What I hope to provide my children with is power. I want them to have the power to enter into a good university. But we will take things step by step.”
The story also mentions growth in school districts’ dual-language offerings and workshops for parents and teachers to bridge language and culture barriers. I would have liked more discussion of this, or even a sidebar or an online article on the topic. We’re left with a brief quote from a district early education manager in south suburban Cook County saying:
“Our goal is not to teach children English, per se. That can be controversial. But it’s about us building a strong language foundation and a pre-academic readiness for our children, whatever the home language its.”
This sparked some fire in the online comments (not surprisingly). I think it would have better served the readers and the district official quoted to give a bit more detail on what this program actually does. Without that information, readers are left with a quotation that lacks context that unintentionally sparks controversy about language learning.
I took a look at the district website in hopes of getting a better feel. While I couldn’t find a real program description of their early childhood offerings, I did find a parent newsletter from last fall (I read the English one; it was also available in Spanish). It offered general tips for parents on helping their children build vocabulary: read every day, get books from the library, etc. It also addressed parents’ concerns that their children are spending too much time in preschool playing and not enough time learning numbers, colors, letters and shapes. (This is the expectations gap referred to in Preschool in Three Cultures, as I discussed recently.)
Overall, the reporters did a great job packing lots of information and statistics into their piece and covered the basic issues well. The thing I would have liked to see here was more discussion of the challenges faced by suburbs where the youngest residents are majority Latino yet the schools and other services employ few Latino adults. There’s not much controversy in the story–I think because within the city of Chicago, there’s not much controversy about the Latino presence here–but my sense is the changing demographic is more of a flashpoint in the suburbs. You wouldn’t really know that from reading this piece.