LAS VEGAS -- The pre-kindergarten classroom at Richard J. Rundle Elementary School in Las Vegas is stocked with books and toys. In the middle of the room, there is a colorful alphabet rug, where 4-year old students sit cross-legged.
Teacher Deanna Macaulay writes a sentence on the white board with the students’ help. She’s on the word “people.”
“What does that start with everybody?” Macaulay asks the class.
“P!” the class shouts back.
Almost all of the 24 students in this class are Latino. For many of them, English is their second language. Kindergarten is several months off, and they are being introduced to the basics of reading, writing and counting.
One lesson involves counting syllables.
“Li-on,” the class says in unison, clapping for each syllable.
“How many?” Macaulay asks.
“Two!” shout a handful of the students.
There is a wealth of evidence that early education is key when it comes to narrowing the achievement gap between Latino children and their peers.
But across the country and this region, access to quality affordable preschool is lacking.
The state of Nevada funds this classroom at Rundle Elementary, along with about 32 other classrooms like it across the state. These pre-K classes are having results - at least for the kids who are lucky enough to participate.
Hispanic students perform poorly on state tests and have lower graduation rates than Whites and Asians. In this series, the Fronteras Desk explores the Latino education achievement gap and finds some educators with innovative solutions.
Nevada’s state pre-K program is targeted to reach kids who are poised to do the worst in school. The 10 classrooms here in Clark County are placed in neighborhoods where family incomes are low, and the number of English Language Learners, or ELLs, are high.
“The ELL population, low income families, the homeless population, those kids come in not playing the same game really,” said Kathlene Banak, who coordinates state-funded pre-kindergarten for the Clark County School District. “And that's what we want: to get them all in the same game.”
One way the program does that is by engaging parents. To even qualify for the program, parents must sign a pledge.
“They have to report back the minutes per week that they are reading to their children,” Banak said. “They have to also work on just engaging in play and high quality time with mom, dad or a significant adult in their life, and they have to report those minutes.”
This pre-K class also addresses different levels of English among the kids.
There are four teachers in this classroom, and half are bilingual. They ease Spanish speaking students into English instruction, while still supporting their native language.
Teacher Anna Rivas sits with a Spanish-speaking student during snack time.
“Does this go in the trash?” the student asks her slowly in Spanish, holding up a wrapper.
“Yes, in the trash,” Rivas responds in Spanish.
The data shows this program is working to close the achievement gap. The state tracked kids up to sixth grade, and found that English Language Learners who enrolled in this pre-K outperform the English Language Learners who didn’t have pre-K.
Parents also notice the benefits. Yamisa Monreal has been surprised by her son Roberto’s progress.
“He’s learned a lot,” Monreal said in Spanish, her only language and the one she uses with her children. “And he’s very confident.”
Monreal’s only regret is that she didn’t enroll her older daughter in pre-kindergarten when she was 4. Now, her daughter is in first grade and is struggling to read and write in English.
But despite the positive results of Nevada’s pre-K program, it is only big enough to serve around 1,300 kids, which is less than 2 percent of 4-year olds in the state.
In fact, Nevada ranks at the bottom for early education enrollment in the nation. A comparison of state education data with U.S. Census estimates reveals that fewer than one-fifth of low income kids in Nevada have access to any kind of public preschool. That tally includes federal programs like Head Start and Title I funds used by schools for pre-K, but excludes special education programs.
“And that just makes no sense to me. It just boggles my mind,” said Lucy Flores, a state legislator, in response to the tiny percentage of students served by state-funded pre-K. “That knowing that we have something that works - that is so successful - is actually not supported. And no one works to expand something that we know works.”
But Nevada, like many other states, is broke. Even if pre-K is closing the achievement gap for Latino kids, there is no money to expand it. As a legislator, Flores plans to champion early education in the next legislative session, but she is well aware of the fiscal realities.
“We are lucky that it is still in existence after all the cuts that were made to education as a whole,” Flores said.
The luckier ones are the nine states, including California, that won federal Race to the Top grants in December to improve preschool.
But several other states have scaled back. Across the country, state funding for preschool fell by $30 million between 2009 and 2010, according to an analysis by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) .
In Arizona, there were fewer slots in state-funded preschool this year compared to last year. The same analysis by NIEER found that Arizona was one of nine states that reduced per pupil spending for preschool by more than 10 percent in 2010, after adjusting for inflation.
Nationally, the percentage of Latino kids in preschool is declining, according to an analysis by U.C. Berkeley Education professor Bruce Fuller and graduate student, Anthony Kim. The authors found that public programs aren't keeping up with demand.
The rate of Latino 4-year olds enrolled in preschool nationwide fell from 53 percent in 2005 to 48 percent in 2009, according to Fuller and Kim's data. In contrast, the rates of non-Hispanic White and Black 4-year olds in preschool held steady at around 70 and 69 percent, respectively.
That trend could worsen the already existing achievement gap affecting Latino kids.
“As access to preschool declines for Latino youngsters, these disparities will likely widen before they enter kindergarten, placing even greater burdens on our public schools,” Fuller said.