MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In the U.S., most Latino children begin school without some of the basic skills necessary to do well in the classroom. Some never catch up. But as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, a recent study found that many of these kids also have unique strengths that could help them make up the difference.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: By the time Rolling Terrace Elementary at Tacoma Park, Maryland, opened its doors this particular morning, dozens of parents and their children had already been hovering, shivering outside in the frigid winter air. About 60 percent of the kids at this school are Latino.
LESVIA SALAZAR: (Foreign language spoken)
SANCHEZ: Lesvia Salazar, 27, is from Guatemala. She has two daughters, a kindergartner and a preschooler.
SALAZAR: (Foreign language spoken)
SANCHEZ: She says that before her daughters started school, she tried really hard to prepare them, playing word games, teaching them the colors and numbers, reading to them.
Mrs. Salazar is typical of the mostly working-class Latino moms who gather for coffee at the school every morning. They don't speak English, but they're constantly checking in on their kids who seem to be doing fine. Researchers say they're the exception, not the rule. Most Latino children start school at least seven months behind when compared to white children. Their vocabulary is smaller. Their familiarity with text and math concepts is weaker. Claudia Galindo is a sociologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
CLAUDIA GALINDO: We're talking about preschoolers, so being able to identify shapes, classifying, identifying, counting, like when you set the table, for example, how many people are in the family, OK, how many plates do we need, all these very basic things.
SANCHEZ: Galindo was part of a team of researchers who recently finished a groundbreaking study led by UCLA and UC Berkeley. They tracked 4,700 working-class Latino parents with children ages 2 to 5, wanting to know how parents were preparing their kids for school. But here's what was startling, says Galindo.
GALINDO: We found that Latino kids bring to school strong emotional skills and strong social skills, which means they know how to share with their peers. They know how to follow instructions. They know how to listen. And one other thing that we found is that these kids are being raised in very supportive and warm family environments.
SANCHEZ: Galindo says these kids' remarkable emotional maturity and social agility have been the missing link when devising strategies to help Latino children catch up academically, because when teachers take into account these kids' eagerness to learn and get along, it's much easier for them to adapt to the classroom quickly and learn English quickly. So there's no reason why they can't succeed academically just as quickly, says Galindo, unless teachers assume that Latino children can't and parents can't help.
GALINDO: Not all schools are open to really understanding where families are coming from.
SANCHEZ: Schools' definition of readiness, says Galindo, is too narrow and often rooted in the view that Latino children are deficient, too slow, too far behind, so they need to be coddled rather than challenged. The research now shows that's a big mistake, says Bruce Fuller, one of the main authors of the UCLA-UC Berkeley study.
BRUCE FULLER: We've got to move education policymakers away from the assumption that we need to fix these kids, we need to fix the parenting skills, not simply assume that they have weaknesses that need to be tinkered with and corrected.
SANCHEZ: The big question is: Can these findings change both teachers' expectations and how they teach Latino children? Researchers say yes, first, because research is now driving some important changes in teaching and learning and more importantly because it's urgent. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.