Monday, March 15, 2010

Resolving the "Immigrant Paradox": Earlier Access to Early Education

Resolving the "Immigrant Paradox": Earlier Access to Early Education

Like so many others in the education, medical and non-profit communities, I read with great interest the recently released results of a study conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development, UCLA’s School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, published in the October edition of the Maternal and Child Health Journal. After examining data gathered from tracking more than 8,000 infants born in 2001 to Latina mothers in the poorest group studied, those of Mexican heritage who speak Spanish rather than English at home, researchers came to some unsurprising conclusions about early childhood development in poor Latino homes.

Those results confirm what many advocates of early childhood education, and especially those focused on closing the achievement gap for Latino children, have long espoused: Latino children are born with the same innate potential as their white peers, but circumstances of poverty, a lack of literacy in the home environment and an inability to access education early on, stymies that potential by about 24 months of age. Indeed, the study showed that poor Latina mothers give birth to healthy babies whose weight equaled that of the average newborn of middle-class, non-Latino white mothers. The study also showed that poor, non-English speaking Latina mothers are no more likely than white mothers to give birth prematurely and in fact, more often provide a higher level of prenatal care than their white counterparts, at least as measured by certain factors like alcohol and tobacco consumption.The study further showed that basic cognition proficiencies for infants at 9 to 15 months of age were found to be statistically equal between Latino and white children, but by 24-to 36-months of age, Mexican-American toddlers lag their white counterparts by up to six months in terms of word comprehension, speaking with varying complexity and working with their mothers on simple tasks as assessed in either Spanish or English.

The study points to problems and challenges including:· Low levels of maternal education; just one-fifth of Mexican-American and one-third of all Latina mothers had completed college courses, compared with nearly two-thirds of white mothers.· A lack of effective and effectively demonstrated learning practices in the home contributing to a greater sense of literacy and cognitive development.· Maternal depression.· Poverty: almost three-fifths of Mexican-American toddlers were growing up in families earning less than $25,000.00 per year.The study also showed that children whose Mexican-American or Latina mothers were employed fared much better than those raised by stay-at-home mothers, even after taking into account maternal education and family income. The results of this study should bolster the cry of so many urging our local and federal governments to provide greater access to early childhood education for toddlers and greater access to classes and education for immigrant parents. At Para Los Niños we have seen first-hand the benefit to both children who receive formal education at an early age and their parents who engage in classes related to parenting, financial education, and literacy. This study confirms our earlier assertions that parents who are themselves illiterate can still have a positive impact on their child’s cognition by the simplest act of modeling literacy through storytelling, through “reading” picture books, and by articulating their actions in the home in a compelling way. This is a problem that we, as educators, can continue to solve.

This study offers more proof that literacy and education have a compelling role to play in making a material difference in diminishing the achievement gap for Latinos in the US, and driving down poverty rates in our nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Considering that by 2025, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, three in 10 children in the US will be of Latino descent; this is an issue that simply cannot be ignored.

Gisselle Acevedo is the President & CEO of Para Los Niños, a non-profit family service organization designed to bring children from some of Los Angeles’ most challenging communities out of poverty and onto brighter, more successful futures.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Literacy: A Parent’s Perspective

In several of our recent blogs we have advocated strategies for parents who want to encourage literacy at home, or have attempted to paint a picture of the struggles many parents face in doing so. For this blog we have chosen to tell the story of “Maria” the mother of two children presently attending Para Los Niños Charter Schools. This story is being told in Maria’s own words.

I was born in Mexico, the daughter of an illiterate woman. My grandparents would not allow her to attend school because she was female and so she never learned to read or write, in her native language or any other. We moved to the United States when I was young, and lived in the Pico/Union district of Los Angeles. Despite her illiteracy, my mother became very involved in our community and church and in our schools, even serving on our PTA. I grew up in a Red Shield center, attending after school programs and enjoying the love and warmth of our small community.

My father encouraged me and my brother and sister to get an education and he stressed the importance of being able to provide for and take care of myself, but my parents separated when I was young and I had no one to encourage me to become educated or to help me with my studies. My mother was exceptionally loving and caring, and in the spirit of our rich culture taught us that family and faith were the great priority over other accomplishments and material things. My mother never accepted any kind of public assistance. She worked to provide for us and what we couldn’t afford, we did without. Perhaps because she herself was uneducated, she truly believed that hard work, self-motivation and honesty was the way to success, my mother didn’t place a high value on education and without my father to encourage me forward, I fell behind.

By the time I reached Jr. High, I was functionally illiterate, able to read only at about a third grade level. For a long time, no one knew this; I learned to mask it well. I began to act out, I was defensive and difficult. One day in detention a counselor realized I couldn’t read or write and tried to help, but there were limits to what one person could do.

Despite my inability to read or write, I got a job working for a financial institution. I was good with numbers and I could type, so I was again able to hide my secret. I became a teller, worked hard and gained an increasing level of accountability until one day a friend recommended me to a doctor who needed assistance with bookkeeping. The doctor immediately recognized that I was illiterate, but also valued me and realized I had the potential to learn. He encouraged me to go back to school, so at twenty-seven I began the process of earning my GED, but never finished. I stayed with the doctor for 20 years, until his situation changed and I became unemployed several years ago. I attended East LA Occupational Center during this time and at 47, I now hold my GED and have a wonderful job at USC .

I am now a parent myself; I have two children, a boy and a girl. Because of our experiences, my husband and I understand only too well the value of education and especially, the value of literacy. Like my mother, I am extremely involved in our community, our church and our school. Like my father, I strongly encourage my children’s education and impress upon them the importance of completing their educational journey. At times my children’s knowledge outpaces my own, and at times I am frustrated that I cannot help them with their schoolwork, but we push on.

Although family is the core of our house, reading and language, both in Spanish and in English, are important priorities. My husband and I both work, and my husband’s English is not strong, but we make time for reading together. We incorporate our rich heritage and cultural traditions into our home and often use these as a basis for learning, or for storytelling. Our family and our culture make our family strong and give our children the values they need to continue their education, and make good choices in the course of their day. I believe my children will go to college and we work hard to ensure this dream will be realized. We are not well off, and we go without many things others have, but we have a shared dream about our future that we are all working together to achieve.

If I had any advice to offer others I would compel them to get involved as much as they can in their children’s lives, to make education a huge priority and to support their kids as much as they are able to. I know only too well the constraints people in my community face and the consequences of falling behind. There is so much to learn and the better we are as parents, the greater the chance our children will succeed. We have to read to our children, tell them stories about where we come from and inspire them to think big. We need to spend time with our children so they know they are important. We need to read as a family and talk about the things we read. We need to create a new generation of readers and learners. This is not just the role of the school but of the parents as well.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Motivation: The Least Understood … Most Powerful Tool in Education

Motivation: The Least Understood … Most Powerful Tool in Education

At the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, Dr. Robert Rueda
( is championing a theory: motivation is not innate, it can be learned and if so, it may very well be one of the most effective tools we have for helping English learners achieve literacy. I spoke with Dr. Rueda about his work examining motivational and sociocultural aspects of reading comprehension, especially as it relates to English-language learners and students living in at-risk conditions. We invite you to join this dialogue by asking questions or sharing your own experiences.

You are doing seminal work in the field of literacy and the impact of motivation on achieving literacy in diverse learners. Can you give us a broad overview?

Our educational system places a great deal of focus on cognition, the child’s intellectual understanding and comprehension of material presented in the classroom. Our research has shown that while cognition is an important element of literacy learning, motivation has an extremely significant role to play in literacy success; and yet it is widely overlooked and rarely understood.

Define “motivation” as you think of it in this context.

Most people, and many educators, believe that motivation is an innate and invariant characteristic; meaning, that you either have it or you don’t and if you do not, well, that’s just who you are and you’re unlikely to change. Research in the field, including our own, has disproven this theory and raised a more contemporary view of motivation which says that motivation is actually a set of beliefs shaped by your life experiences and the social contexts in which you function. These beliefs reflect your observations about the world in which you live, your sense of efficacy (ability to succeed at a given task), your perceptions about the causes of success and failure, and value you place on certain activities, and your interests and goals. Research has also shown that motivation is dynamic. So, a child who was previously unmotivated does have the capacity to change on a large scale.

How do you influence a child who is unmotivated to read become more motivated to do so?

There are three key factors that create a sense of motivation in ELL and at-risk students. First, the child must have an interest in, or place value on, a certain subject. Students work harder when what they are learning is important and familiar to them. Students must also believe that they are capable of doing well; we call this self-efficacy. We also see that students work harder when they believe their effort will pay off and when they are able to attribute their success or failure to the quality or amount of effort they expended on a particular task. Finally, we know that students are more motivated when their goal is to achieve understanding (we refer to this as mastery) rather than compete for a grade.

In the case of a child who seems unmotivated to learn, the key to helping him or her is first to discover why. Are they being asked to read or learn with materials to which they cannot relate and therefore, have no interest? For example, a child living in urban poverty may not be able to relate to stories that take place in rural settings. Do they believe the reason they are failing is simply because they are “dumb” instead of being helped to realize an inherent problem with their study habits or the amount of effort they applied to the task?

How can classroom teachers create environments that foster motivation?
Influencing motivation begins by understanding students and the sociocultural environments in which they live; good teachers know about their students’ lives outside of school. This forms the basis upon which teachers can offer students materials that are relevant and relatable to their own experiences and help them engage in the reading process. Additionally, teachers have a powerful influence over the degree to which the student feels he or she can be successful by delivering feedback that is fair and accurate, and that focuses on the work or the task instead of a perceived deficit in the child. For example, if a child fails a task the teacher should reinforce the child’s ability to improve, but relate the failure to the fact that the child needs to study differently, or study more and to suggest a new strategy for learning.

What about curriculum? For many teachers there is little room to manipulate curriculum and not enough development to sustain major changes to curriculum or introductions in new teaching methods.
There is an inverse relationship in public schools between a lack of motivation and an increase in control and standardization. The poorer a child performs the more rote and standardized the curriculum becomes. The obvious problem with this is that it further reduces a child’s interest and motivation to learn. Yet, even teachers who are teaching amid this type of situation can have influence. For example, in one classroom the teacher was working with a thematic unit on food sources and how various foods have been used throughout history. Many of the children in the class were from farming villages in Mexico and understood the value of corn because it was so central to their culture and their individual experiences. They could easily dialogue about this and immediately connect with the idea, therefore, the lesson had both interest and meaning and they believed they could be successful because they began with a basis for understanding. Ironically, teachers working amid highly controlled curriculums often suffer the same motivational challenges as their students.

What role do parents play in helping to motivate their children to become literate?

As was pointed out in a previous blog, parents exert great influence over the value their children place on literacy. At-risk children typically lack conventional reading materials in their homes and rarely see their parents reading, simply because the parents themselves may be illiterate. Even illiterate parents can make use of their cultural knowledge and traditions by telling stories or discussing pictures they see in the news or by using picture books to engage in reading activities. Our research also shows that the degree to which parents insist on hard work in school and value the effort their children put into their schoolwork is critical to motivation. Further, children of parents who set challenging expectations and believe their children can meet them do better than children whose parents have low expectations. Simply showing an interest in what your child is interested in helps foster learning.

What literature or resources exist for teachers who want to learn more about how to better motivate and engage their students in literacy?

Dr. Rueda, can you provide a perspective here?
A good web-based quick overview of motivation and reading can be found on:

An additional resource is the CORI (Concept Oriented Reading Instruction), a program developed at the University of Maryland by Dr. John Guthrie and his colleagues. A good description of this program, along with classroom materials, research articles, videotape clips, etc, can be found at:

Unfortunately, little work has been done to date specifically with students who are in the process of acquiring English, but increasing attention is being paid to this topic.

Dr. Robert Rueda is a professor in the area of Psychology in Education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. He completed his doctoral work at the University of California at Los Angeles in Educational Psychology and Special Education, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. His research has focused on the sociocultural basis of motivation and instruction, with a focus reading and literacy in English learners, students in at-risk conditions, and students with mild learning handicaps.

Gisselle Acevedo
President & CEO
Para Los Niños

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Latino Literacy Gap: Why Traditional Education Fails

The Latino Literacy Gap: Why Traditional Education Fails

Judy Perlmutter and Norma Silva are principals at Para Los Niños’ charter middle and primary schools respectively. Para Los Niños educates children in Los Angeles’ Skid Row district.
A recent series in the New York Times entitled, “Remade in America”, (Where Education and Assimilation Collide - Series - has aimed the spotlight on recently immigrated children and their struggles to succeed, both academically and socially, in America’s public institutions of learning. The authors to these articles have pointed out the unintended problems associated with creating second language learning programs, including isolation, segregation, and prejudice, to name a few.

While second language learners make up the vast majority of the student populations at our charter and middle schools, our student populations are primarily Hispanic. Because of this cultural homogeny, our children have a tremendous comfort level and perhaps a greater degree of ownership over their environment than those described in the series.

That being said, our children share many of the same obstacles as those children interviewed or otherwise described by the Times; many are part of immigrant families or belong to a low socio economic demographic. In point of fact, nearly 100% of our students qualify for a reduced or free lunch. Like many of the teachers interviewed in the series, we too believe that English fluency is the gateway to achieving success over poverty, and our goal is to see our children reclassified as fluent in English by the time they matriculate from 5th grade to the middle school.
To this end, we feel that the greatest barrier to Latino achievement, or, for that matter, achievement by most non-English speaking children, is often the language of academics itself. In saying this we are referring to the jargon of academia, both as it relates to the technical content of words but also directions and context setting, for example, “Please compare and contrast..” or, “Please analyze…” and so on.

Very often the most difficult aspect of learning is the mastery of this type of vocabulary. And, because contextual understanding is critical to accurate assessment and problem-solving, a traditional, rote form of learning often fails. Here’s why: in many traditional academic programs, language is acquired through a process of decoding words themselves, rather than placing an emphasis on concept and context. Futher, this instruction is often provided at the lowest levels of decoding. So as the vocabulary of tests and text books becomes more complex, students who have achieved fluency at this low level are unable to think and understand at higher levels and are, therefore, unable to appropriately access academic vocabulary, assess and problem-solve.

To address this problem we have changed our educational approach to create a comprehensive literacy program that complements a comprehensive academic program. In other words, our instruction in literacy learning is not separate and distinct from our instruction in any other subject. While we offer subjects in traditional time periods, our instruction in the mechanics of literacy does not occur separate from the educational concepts being taught in other subjects.
So, whereas many schools take a unit approach to instruction in a given subject, we have year-long studies and we view each year as a journey in which we are building on the following year and preparing for the coming year. As a result, subjects like art and science are not taught as units in isolation of one another. Rather, our entire curriculum is integrated, helping children to make deeper connections. For example, in the third grade the California standard requires instruction in camouflage as part of a Desert Life curriculum. We teach to the standard, however, our children may be working on the higher learning concept of “interdependence,” from which we teach about animal habitat, of which camouflage is an important part. Art instruction will follow suit. Or, if we are teaching about states of matter in science we may discuss the characteristics of solids, one of which is texture. We will then use texture in art class to illustrate the lesson and attempt to forge a deeper connection.

In all subjects our emphasis is on experiential problem-solving, of which writing and discourse is an important part. This again bears contrast to more didactic, traditional approaches to classroom learning in which the teacher instructs and the students listen and respond. In our schools, the teacher instructs, but he/she also moderates and facilitates. As an example, we have what we call “turn and talk” triads where children are placed in groups of three to discuss the lesson at hand. The teacher’s role in this exercise is to conduct formative assessment by listening to the students and assessing their grasp of the concepts so that he/she can determine how to respond, or to change the method in which something is being taught. The teacher may also use this time as an opportunity to call out children who can serve as literacy examples to others.

Our test scores and the academic achievement of our students have demonstrated to us that this method is a powerful tool for learning, for all children, but especially second language learners.
We would like to hear from others with similar experiences, or from those who are either struggling with, or having success in more traditional classroom settings. Are your children hindered by their academic environments?

Do you feel academic language is a barrier to success? We encourage you to share your experiences for the benefit of teachers everywhere.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Challenges of Achieving Early Literacy

In 2007, The National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a national Lee y serás partner, published a study whose results pointed to early childhood education as a means for closing the Latino achievement gap ( The authors of that report used the term “trajectory of failure” to describe the compulsory pathway of Latino children whose circumstances all but ensure failure before their lives have truly begun.

Several readers of this blog have wondered “aloud” about the reasons for a gap in Latino achievement, and why this may be so closely associated with Latinos as opposed, in their own experiences, to other minorities. NCLR’s study, and work done by others on this subject, provides much compelling data regarding the reasons behind this phenomenon, including facts such as this: sixty seven percent of Hispanic families with children under the age of three have income that is 200% below the poverty line as compared to 39% of white families with similarly-aged children. This singular fact results in a series failures that inhibit the development of early literacy, including less access to substantive early childhood education, less maternal education, comparatively fewer books in the home, more health uninsurance and less access to adequate healthcare, just to name a few. The sum of these factors results in less reading, less access to reading resources, less literacy modeling and fewer opportunities to develop basic literacy skills. Children sailing quickly down the trajectory of failure do so with these winds blowing strongly at their backs. Information such as this may cause us to want to give up, to wonder if amid such tremendous barriers meaningful progress can actually be made. At Para Los Niños we work daily to ensure that it can. This statement may sound merely aspirational, but our test scores provide a measure of truth that it’s possible (link to PLN website with information). Through our work in schools established in the most poverty stricken areas of Los Angeles, we have identified two key factors in literacy success: parents and teachers. While this is not a revelation and it’s clearly oversimplified, these are the most critical components of achieving literacy.

Although the process of moving parents who are not engaged to engagement is complex and difficult, especially where issues of poverty, mental illness, drug abuse and physical abuse are present, the early building blocks of reading are not difficult to achieve, nor costly to implement. We have found, and experts agree, that literacy learning begins with parents who are responsive to their children and their interests. Parents who speak directly to their children, who carry on conversations (even if in a foreign language), who are responsive, and who are willing to foster their child’s interest to read and to write are helping their children gain literacy, even if reading itself doesn’t initially take place in the home.

These same principles apply to teachers. Our teaching strategies encourage child-led development and learning activities because, among other reasons, we believe this demonstrates our interest in what the child finds interesting. Or, as educator P.D. Pearsons put it, “Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge and diversity of knowledge into a curricular strength, rather than an instructional inconvenience.” To this end, we recognize many activities beyond reading itself that promote reading skills. For example, we believe in the power of engaging, responsive conversations with students as a precursor to language formation, and we place a very high value on giving children time to explore literacy by encouraging off-curriculum activities such as writing letters to friends, drawing pictures and telling stories, none of which revolve around a traditional notion of reading instruction.

Several years ago we recognized that a rote approach to learning was not an effective teaching method for many of the children we serve. Children who live in poverty are victims of circumstance, often feeling isolated and powerless. Wanting to strengthen this love of learning and to close the gap between those who have and those who have not, we adopted the Reggio Emilia pedagogy in all our schools. With roots as a municipal child-care program in Italy, Reggio Emilia is an emergent curriculum which views the child as a competent learner and engages the child through a child-directed curriculum. Interestingly, the Reggio Emilia approach does not provide the kind of traditionally focused instruction in reading and writing that most of us are used to and yet we see our children embrace these skills with passion. We considered this model experimental when we originally adopted it, and while we believed it would be successful and invested in significant training to make it so, it was a huge change for us and was, therefore, a risk.

I believe passionately that it’s this kind of risk-taking, experimentation and exploration that will ultimately empower Latinos to excel … if we are willing to take a chance and commit to change. I am interested in hearing from others who have successfully experimented with new methods of teaching …particularly those in disadvantaged areas. What do you do to close the gap for Latinos, even the playing field and catch our children before they descend into failure? What are the tools and techniques you employ to stimulate both a love of learning and the acquisition of literacy skills? How do you incorporate pretend play as a model for language acquisition? What have you done to motivate parents who are themselves illiterate to engage in literacy activities? I urge you to engage in this dialogue, share your stories, and help us save our children.

Gisselle Acevedo
President and CEO
Para Los Niños

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Empowering Children Through Literacy

I am deeply honored that Scholastic has invited me to join this innovative project, and am excited about the prospect of exchanging ideas among parents, educators and others who share a deep passion and concern for empowering children through education. As CEO of Para Los Niños, I represent an organization committed to lifting all children, regardless of race or ethnicity, out of poverty. But, we can’t ignore the statistics we read or the facts that surround us, all of which point to an urgent need to focus greater efforts on helping Latino children achieve literacy. It is a fact that Hispanic children represent slightly more than 20 percent of all children under age five in the United States and yet, only 14 percent of Latino fourth-graders and nine percent of eighth-graders can read at or above basic or advanced skill levels. As the fastest growing demographic segment of the US economy, literacy among Latino children has moved well beyond the responsibility of one specific culture. The challenge of better educating Latino children is an opportunity, if not an obligation, for anyone interested in creating better, safer, more stabilized communities.

It has been stated by those who research both the causes and effects of poverty that the success of a child is determined by three primary factors: the choices made by society and the government regarding the opportunities available to children and their parents, the choices made by parents regarding the resources to which their children have access and, the choices children make given the opportunities made available to them.

I am a passionate believer in the power of individual choice, but know only too well the great numbers of children who are denied the right to early childhood education because their parents are isolated by poverty and overwhelmed by the challenges of day-to-day living; essentially rendered unable to choose. Our failure to provide access to early education and the inability, or unwillingness, of parents to embrace these opportunities opens the door wide to gang violence, poverty, oppression and despair.

Opinion polls show that Latinos understand literacy and education are the gateways by which they can move beyond the darkness of poverty and into the light of success. The truth of this statement bears evidence every day at Para Los Niños, where even those individuals who are the most deeply affected by the affects of urban poverty can, or can learn how to, engage in their child’s education. And, because we have seen it proven amidst the worst imaginable living conditions on LA’s Skid Row, we know that achieving literacy early is one of the only truly meaningful equalizers of success in today’s society.

Through this blog I hope to exchange ideas on many levels and with many voices. As a Hispanic woman who rose through poverty, I understand the challenges faced by those who are trying to do the same. As a former teacher and the leader of teachers working in schools in the poorest of communities, I know both the frustrations and aspirations of this job. As the CEO of a non-profit dedicated to early education and development, I engage often in matters of social policy and the cross collaboration among non-profit and government agencies, and see first-hand the opportunities and the complexities of these efforts. Finally, as a parent, I know only too well the unparalleled desire to see a child achieve her truest potential, and the despair associated with the sometimes arbitrary nature of circumstance.

In the weeks to come, I hope we can begin a conversation that leads us in a forward looking direction against our common goal: the exploration of the challenges to achieving Latino literacy, the sharing of practices that work, the importance of family, the role of culture and the hope afforded to children everywhere through education and literacy.

Until then, I invite you to share your stories, to post comments and to make recommendations about topics for future blogs.

Gisselle Acevedo
President and CEO
Para Los Niños

Monday, November 27, 2006

Latino Preparation Gap

The Facts:

• Indicators of reading difficulty are often evident before children enter kindergarten. Reports have found young Latino 4-year olds having limited vocabulary in Spanish or English and tending to be less able than their peers to perform such basic early literacy tasks as writing their first name or recognizing the letters of the alphabet.

• Research has shown that once children are behind it is difficult for them to catch up and the gap often widens. Nationally, 85% of Latino 4th graders are reading below proficient level.

What are some of the factors contributing to the Latino preparation gap?

What are the most essential components of language and early literacy development?

What roles do parents/other family members and community environments play in the development of these skills?

Share your opinions and ideas.