Meeting the Early Learning Needs of ALL Children – Not Just the Ones Who Show Up

By Karen Nemeth, Ed.M.

If you are reading this, you must be interested in early childhood education.  Now, here’s the question at the core of this post:  “Have you given any thought to the children who, for one reason or another, will not be able to attend a preschool program?” There’s an awful lot of talk about early childhood education these days, much of it coming from President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan.  Politicians are talking about it, as are business leaders and economists. Millions upon millions of Federal and state funding dollars are being spent for high quality early childhood programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start and universal preschool.  Great minds are hard at work deciding exactly what the best possible preschool program should look like.  But a preschool program is only effective for the children who show up.

What if the children who don’t show up are the ones who need high quality early learning experiences the most?  My primary professional focus is on children who speak languages other than English.  Their needs are more complex than non-immigrant English speakers, and K-12 schools are still struggling with the challenge of how to teach them.   A lot is riding on their ability to be ready for school.   That means a lot is riding on our expert ability to design high quality learning supports that truly fulfill the goal of preparing all children to be ready for school.

When I worked at the NJ Department of Education, I was struck by the fact that millions of dollars are spent on developing and improving high quality preschool programs.  Still, in most funded districts, 10% or more of the children who needed preschool most were not attending.  At that rate, how can we call it ‘universal preK’?.   Who are the children that are not participating in free high quality preschool?  On a national level, The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) suggests an answer, “…children from immigrant families accounted for 24 percent of the preschool-age population. Although 1.9 million preschool-age children in immigrant families attended an early education program, another 1.3 million were not enrolled.”  (

Getting up early, getting dressed and ready, and transporting young children to a program every day is just not workable for many families.  Does that mean we don’t have to give their children a better shot a success?  If their children enter school with little or no preparation, increased risk factors, and the added challenge of a language barrier, they might be more likely to need costly additional services as they progress through the grades.  I guess it’s hard for me to see the point in investing so many millions of dollars on only one type of out-of-home program while we remain unwilling to invest a small portion of that money to bring services to wherever the children might be.   Really, we’re either going to address the achievement gap or we’re not.  I don’t think we can find a dignified way to say our goal is to ‘sort of address the achievement gap.’

At, Sara Mead posted some interesting findings in her October 1 blog,  “A Closer Look at Stay-at-Home Moms”.  Based on a recent US Census report, “About 5.6 million American women — about one out of every four mothers with children under age 15 — were stay-at-home moms in 2007. Not surprisingly, stay-at-home moms were more likely to have younger children—and to be younger themselves — than non-stay-at home moms. They are also disproportionately Hispanic, foreign-born, and have less education, compared to all mothers.”  We have to realize that children who are missing out on high quality preschool program are not children with advantages.  In fact, they may have even more complications.

As my colleague, Marcela Summerville (PreKlanguages) said in a twitter exchange, she does volunteer work with Mexican immigrants – and many of them are afraid to send their children to free preschool because they don’t want to reveal their immigrant status.   As I’ve been doing presentations about supporting young dual and English language learners across the country, I heard a number of other obstacles that keep families from enrolling in preschool.  One of the most common concerns is that families who speak little or no English will not be able to access information about the programs in the first place.  While I applaud the efforts of many programs to provide information in English and Spanish, and sometimes in other prominent languages, that still doesn’t help the few families who speak isolated or indigenous languages.  The flip side of this issue is that a program that only advertises in a language you and your child do not speak does not seem like the most hospitable place.  Furthermore, the idea of signing your “baby” up for school before the age of six is not common in some cultures.   Still another factor is how frequently many families move around, particularly when they are under economic stress.  Understanding what is keeping some preschool age children home will go a long way toward improving attendance rate.  Yet, there will always be children who are isolated or suffering or needy or perfectly ordinary who just do not get signed up for preschool.

In my comments to Sara Mead’s October 1 blog, I said

“We persist in using the term ‘universal pre-K’ to refer to services provided not to all, but only to most young children in the coverage area. We are educators and we should know the difference between ‘most’ and ‘all’ – especially when it comes to spending millions of taxpayer dollars to reduce achievement gaps in disadvantaged areas. I believe we got too caught up in advocating for high quality preschool programs when we should have been focusing on meeting the needs of preschool children. If you really stop to think about it, anyone can come up with a list of valid reasons why a five day, 8:00 – 3:00 schedule may be unworkable for some families. I’ve heard, “The program is too far and I don’t have transportation,” “I’m disabled and can’t get my kids out on time every morning,” “I’m worried about our immigration status,” “I work odd hours and can’t stick to that schedule with my kids,” “I work two jobs as it is and the school keeps putting more requirements on me,” or “I hated school when I was young and I don’t want to get involved there now.” So, my question is this: should we devote our expertise and resources to a plan that considers children in these circumstances to be expendable? I hope the census report on stay-at-home moms will call attention to the fact that some important at-risk children are being overlooked. We can’t expect high quality preschool to work its magic unless we are willing to adapt the program to fit the needs of every family who needs it. When states begin to shift their focus to giving every disadvantaged child an opportunity to prepare for school, we will see truly mixed delivery models that include school based programs partnering with Head Start, child care centers, family child care, kinship care and home visits for stay-at-home moms.”

There are a number of wonderful models that are broadening the scope of early childhood education through flexible programs, family literacy initiatives and strengthening families approaches (I’ll elaborate on solutions in my next post).  This isn’t new – it’s just not big enough yet.  More resources and attention than ever before are being devoted to the critical role of early childhood education in developing our ‘human capital’ and preparing our citizens of the future.  Let’s make it our goal to provide high quality early learning experiences for ALL children… and this time, let’s act like we mean it!

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