A Learning Journey With Latino Immigrant Children: An American Low-Income Preschool Enhancement Project

Lena Lee, Ph.D.
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio

This project was funded by the PNC Foundation.

For more than three years, I have been working on a project designed for young children in several low-income preschool classrooms in a small city in the Midwestern United States. I developed the Low-Income Preschool Enhancement (LIPE) project, in an effort to decrease learning deficits among low-income preschoolers. Such deficits are already significant before kindergarten: a child from a low-income family is likely to have an 18-month delay in learning by his/her 4th year of life and the deficits seldom decrease even by 5th grade.1 The LIPE project was intended to support children whose families may not have access to educational technologies, and who are less familiar with the dominant U.S. culture. These young children also may lack the ability to understand and use “educated” language in school.2 The project used technology and teaching approaches to address these goals.

I was extremely excited about adding half-day preschool classes in a Headstart program designed primarily for young Latino immigrant children from low-income families. This excitement stemmed not only from my desire to help more children who most need individual attention and support, but also from my strong passion to make immigrant children’s lives, like that of my own child, easier, and their transition to American culture smoother.

I began my project with two classes of young Latino English language learners. The project combined use of technology, such as educational iPad app games and smartboards, with hands-on experiences, including guest speakers for social studies, field trips, math games, and a science experiment, to promote concrete learning of content and English, connected to real-life experiences. Each day, I interacted with the children individually, teaching a concept of a particular subject with the iPad app games, movements, other games, and books. In the first semester, I addressed mathematical concepts, such as number recognition and counting, as well as a concept from social studies—community helpers.

My instruction usually occurred right after the students’ breakfast in the classroom. One morning, when I was calling each student’s name for this activity, I noticed that some appeared listless or disinterested. After the instructions, I talked with the teacher, who was familiar with the particular family cultures of this group of children. I learned that several children usually went to bed late and got up late because of their families’ routines. Some of them came to class without brushing their teeth or washing their faces, and, of course, had no time to eat breakfast. After I learned this, I changed my instructional routine to help motivate them by starting with an active number song incorporating movement and games, with use of a number carpet, small beanbags, and several baskets and small balls.

During the iPad instruction in a counting game, many students were excited to see a picture of a pizza. Although I am not fluent in Spanish, I can speak French, and so was able to understand some words that 5-year-old Celino was saying in Spanish when he saw the pizza on the iPad screen. I said, “Oh, so you had pizza last week with your father and sister! Is your dad’s favorite food pizza?” Celino nodded and smiled: “Yo tambien!” Then, he switched to English to say, “I ate pizza yesterday. I wanted to eat it with you. And I counted it, too.”

As Celino opened up to me more and more, I learned that he had a new baby sister and that he did not like police officers. Several of the children I have worked with have had fathers who were in jail, and some of them had witnessed police keeping their parents away from them at home. Celino had a chance to meet a police officer in his classroom, because my project also included featuring guest speakers who were community helpers. I thought inviting a police officer to speak with the class could provide some detail about other roles for the police. After the police officer’s visit, I asked Celino to share his thoughts. “So that loud siren is not for making me scared. It means somebody will get help soon. Right?” Even though it is not certain that his perceptions of the police were completely changed, Celino now had been exposed to the idea that the police are there to help him and other people when they are in danger.

When I came back to the class after winter break, most of the children greeted me cheerfully and ran to me to give me hugs. Several of them held up some fingers, saying out loud how many they were holding up. They had remembered I taught counting numbers 1 to 10 in the last semester and referred to me as a “señorita de números.” Celino came to me and asked, “Do you remember me?” He proudly said he would go to kindergarten in the fall, and then asked, “So what will I learn today? I am ready.”

Each day I spent with the children, we learned and grew together. Early learning experiences such as the ones I described briefly above are imperative for young children who are marginalized in society. Early years learning is crucial if children are to be ready for kindergarten and the rest of their schooling.3 However, many Latino immigrant children often lack these experiences. Less than 50% of young Latino children have a certain type of preschool education and care, and they have less preparation for learning in school.4 Many low-income families cannot afford to provide their children with quality preschool experiences.

I continue to ask myself what more we can do to encourage children to dream big and make their dreams come true. I have continued to reflect on what action plans teacher educators, teachers, policymakers, and community leaders need to take for children like Celino, who has started to dream about becoming a firefighter. Fair and sufficient learning opportunities will not be available for many Latino children from low-income families without devoting persistent effort, time, and resources for systematic and financial support of early childhood education. Their learning will be enriched tremendously with access to excellent quality preschool curriculum and reliable professionals at each level. I firmly believe that every small step we are taking through strong collaborations to improve immigrant children’s education and lives will strengthen society, just like little drops of water make a mighty ocean.


1Barnett, S., Belfield, C., Montie, J., Nores, M., Scheweihart, L., & Xiang, Z. (2005). The High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age forty. High/Scope Education Research Foundation. Retrieved September 2, 2012, from http://www.highscope.org/file/Research/PerryProject/specialsummary_rev2011_02_2.pd

2Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel & A.H. Halsey (Eds.), Power and ideology in education (pp. 487–511). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

3Reardon, S. F., & Galindo, C. (2009). The Hispanic-white achievement gap in math and reading in the elementary grades. American Educational Research Journal, 46, 853-891.

4Child Trends Databank. (2015). Preschool and prekindergarten. Retrieved May 17, 2016 from http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/103_Prekindergarten.pdf