Early Education, Child care, and Immigrant New York

New York may be the iconic immigrant city, but for newcomers it’s not exactly a model of simplicity, at least when it comes to government services, says a new report by the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

The report, “Breaking Down Barriers: Immigrant Families and Early Childhood Education in New York City” underlines just how hard it is for immigrant parents to navigate an often bewildering early childhood education and childcare system.

Mirroring national trends, more than half of New Yorkers under the age of six live in immigrant families, including many (one in four, according to the Urban Institute) under the poverty line who are technically eligible for child care subsidies. Yet few immigrant families know the options for free or low-cost early child education programs such as Head Start available to their children, according to the report’s authors.

In a city where many parents enroll their newborn children in coveted preschool waiting lists, the CACF report (based on a survey of Bangladeshi, Chinese, Dominican, Haitian, Korean, and Russian parents and the social services providers who work with them) found poor translation services, concerns about immigration status, and lack of affordable programs were all effective roadblocks to immigrant parents hoping to enroll their children in preschool and other child care programs.

“A large portion of the immigrant community is being left out of essential systems of child care due to the inability of service providers to connect effectively with these children and families,” reads the report. “Language barriers, immigrant status, general distrust of the government, and cultural stigma further undermine efficient delivery of services.”

New York City and State have policies that support free or low-cost child care for low income families and preschool for all four-year-olds, regardless of their immigration status. But there have never been enough resources to live up to these lofty goals, despite large increases since the late 1990s in the federal child care block grant and growing state and city funding for Universal Pre-Kindergarten.

Today, many immigrant parents still aren’t enrolling their children in critical early childhood education programs, despite decades of research documenting the connection between early-education programs such as pre-kindergarten and Head Start and fewer numbers of children from poor families who need special education services or are left back in school.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has spoken out repeatedly on the need for greater access to quality early education, most recently in his Flint, Michigan speech on economic reform. His Republican opponent John McCain has not addressed the topic.

But neither candidate has touched the potentially incendiary topic of language accessibility of government services—which, according to the CACF report, may well be the single greatest barrier for immigrant families seeking early childhood services in New York City.

Since 2003, following passage of the “Equal Access to Human Services” local law, New York public assistance workers and other city employees are supposed to be able to communicate with the city’s 8 million immigrants when they seek assistance. Yet advocates say much is still lost in translation for newcomer parents.

A 2007 report issued by several immigrant grassroots and advocacy groups and Advocates for Children reported that two-thirds of immigrant parents didn’t even receive their child’s public school report cards translated into the language they spoke at home.

This is not just a New York City problem. As reporter Margaret Farley Steele of The New York Times reported last week, even Norwalk, Connecticut’s relatively small school system is working hard to involve immigrant parents in the local public schools.

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