Daycare can bridge the achievement gap


Email Sandra Nichols

  "To answer the challenge to educate our students better and faster, local preschools and day care centers in the Pajaro Valley are expanding their offerings to provide educational enrichment for the youngest children."


n the modern world, there's no time to waste when it comes to education.

There was a time when demands on educating our children were not so great. When children reached the age of five, they entered school—often in a one-room schoolhouse. They progressed through the primary and on to the secondary level with relative ease. Some went to college.

Since then, the world's population has grown. Our schools keep getting bigger, and we ask more from our students. Society demands a more educated person to move into the workforce. Students must work harder and study more advanced subjects. Some must do so on a non-level playing field since they have yet to attain the necessary skills in the English language.

To answer the challenge to educate our students better and faster, local preschools and day care centers in the Pajaro Valley are expanding their offerings to provide educational enrichment for the youngest children.

As a graduate school student, I learned that oral language is not something you acquire in school. Oral language develops naturally in the home and in social settings through exposure to correct language being spoken. I was studying Speech and Language, so this natural language acquisition process was something we discussed often.

Recently, to support ongoing research into how best to help English language learners acquire the needed language skills, I visited local day care homes and centers to observe first hand how the process of oral language acquisition is working. I visited eight Migrant Head Start day care homes during the past month, thanks to the day care providers who welcomed me into their homes and the staff members who set up the visits for me. I observed the daily life of about 80 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. To my utter surprise, not one child was crying! Why are these children so happy?

The day care homes provide care for up to 12 children and all had at least two adults providing care and genuine learning experiences. Migrant Head Start has certain standards for day care homes including fantasy play areas, active play areas, nap areas, mini-libraries, cooking facilities, and family gathering rooms. They have little worktables with 12 child-sized chairs where children do clay projects and art.

Here, children are assisted with brushing their teeth at least twice a day. The bathrooms in these homes all sport 12 toothbrushes labeled with names.

The day care homes were all clean and set up to incorporate a family-living style. In many cases dads were actively participating in food preparation and child care. In several homes grandmothers and older children of the care provider were also assisting. The teenagers—by the way—were providing English speaking models for the little ones. That's exactly what we need to help break down the language learning barrier. New programs addressing this need, like my proposed "Ear for English" program, are essential to help close the achievement gap.

A special feature that makes a lot of sense is the lending libraries. Understand that many of the children in these homes have parents working in our fields. The lending libraries have books at the ready for parents to take home on weekends to read to their children.

In one home, the day care provider had loaned her camera to a parent to take photos of the other parents at work in the fields. These photos were proudly displayed on a bulletin board next to photos of the little ones doing activities in day care. What a great way to make children and parents aware of each other's work.

I was impressed by all of these aspects of day care homes. However, there was one observation that impressed me more than all of the others. In one home a young man was sitting in the sandbox with a toddler climbing all around. He spoke to me in English about the garden his grandfather had planted that produced bountiful fruit that the day care children harvested and ate for snacks. As we talked, I thought about how he spends his days assisting his mother in her day care, instead of what other young men his age are doing. He was practicing good parenting skills while he models for children that young men are kind, gentle people that are great to be around and are bilingual, responsible grown ups.

Yes, schooling is more complicated these days. There is more to learn than ever. So, we have to start sooner. We have to put in the effort now to get kids ready for the world of tomorrow. To do this successfully, we can no longer wait until the child is five years old.

Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with the Santa Cruz City School District, and served on the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

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© Sandra Nichols 2004