Opinion: Early education success needs culturally-specific approaches

By Guest Columnist

By Kali Ladd, Carmen Rubio, Kimberly Porter and Lee Po Cha 

Ladd is executive director of Kairos PDX. Rubio is executive director of Latino Network. Porter is director of maternal health and early-childhood parent engagement at Black Parent Initiative. Lee is executive director of the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization. The four are writing on behalf of their organizations and the Native American Youth and Family Center.

The importance of early childhood education is increasingly at the forefront of public policy conversations in Oregon. As our state leaders develop programs to serve increasingly diverse early learners, it is imperative that they turn to organizations who have successfully served diverse communities for decades so that every child has access to quality early childhood education. 

Too often conversations about educational inequities focus on statistics that highlight the “achievement gap” and other challenges faced by communities of color. While we acknowledge that these challenges exist, as leaders of culturally specific, community-based organizations that serve early learners and their families, we know there is much more to the story.

A recent report published by Portland State University’s Center for the Improvement of Child and Family Services confirms what we already know - children and families thrive in educational settings where they are supported by educators who understand and share their culture.

As the report highlights, our organizations have the expertise and track record to provide insight on creating programming that sustains children’s home culture, fosters safe learning environments that acknowledge and overcome historical trauma, and supports and sustains social-emotional development and pre-academic readiness necessary to succeed in school. For our organizations, current education buzzwords such as “trauma informed care” and “culturally responsive” have been practices we’ve had in place for years to address the needs of our children and families.

As policymakers work to decrease disparities in educational outcomes at all levels within the public education system, collaboration with our culturally specific, community-based organizations would fundamentally change outcomes for young children across the state. 

Our results speak for themselves. PSU’s report finds that children who go through our programs develop increased school readiness skills and improve their school attendance, their parents increase their involvement in support of their children’s learning and development at home. These outcomes – decreased disparities and more family involvement – are goals mainstream education programs have struggled to achieve for decades.

Earlier this month, Gov. Kate Brown signed the Student Success Act, which includes $400 million for early childhood funding, with funds set aside specifically to support culturally specific programs. We applaud this investment and encourage others in the education community to remember that in a time of increasing diversity and disparities, it is time to look at us as subject-matter experts to ensure these early learning investments – and Oregon’s children – reach their full potential.