Hispanic Kids Lag Without Early Literacy Support: Study

Latino children, who generally enter kindergarten already six months behind their peers in school readiness, could advance academically faster if more were enrolled in programs like Head Start or Montessori, a new study argues.

(RELATED NATIONAL JOURNAL VIDEO: Early Childhood Education's Impact on the Economy)

"The Role of Out-of School Factors in the Literacy Problem" maps the long-term implications of the increase in the number of Latino kids under 5 "“ now 25 percent of all U.S. children "“ on the country's K-12 system, colleges and universities, and the workforce.

Obstacles to helping such children at such a critical time of their lives often include parents' income, poverty, and in-home language issues, among other challenges to early learning.

The volume of Hispanic children heading into their school years and the impact of a slow start on a generation's educational and socioeconomic path are causes for concern.

In California and Texas, Latinos already account for more than 50 percent of all children of kindergarten age or younger. Nonwhites under the age of 1 account for more than half of all infants nationwide.

Reading skills beyond merely identifying words are essential to success in school and the workplace. "Low literacy levels among children from less-advantaged families dramatically reduce the potential for upward mobility," the study said.

As an example, poverty alone creates problems for educational administrators serving Latino communities. The poverty rate for Latinos stands at 34.1 percent, compared with the national average of 22 percent, federal figures show.

How well public school systems respond to the Latino population surge will determine the nation's economic prosperity and competitiveness in the global economy, said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., at a recent education conference. For education policy planners, "that will be the litmus test decades from now," he said.

The literacy gap between whites and nonwhites widens each year. In addition to socioeconomic factors, the English proficiency of children's parents partially explains poor school readiness among Latinos, according to the study.

Proposed congressional cuts to early-childhood education would be detrimental to Latinos and blacks, as well as other children from lower-income households, said Agustin Romero, director of student equity of Tucson Unified School District. Every nine seconds, he stressed, a public high school student drops out.