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Diversity in preschools: Does teacher race or quality matter more?

Kindergarten teacher Christina Jacquez teaches Maya numbers one through 20 to her class on Dec. 5, 2012.
Kindergarten teacher Christina Jacquez teaches Maya numbers one through 20 to her class on Dec. 5, 2012.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Born and raised in Los Angeles, Eric Gavica’s roots trace back to Sonora, Mexico, where his grandfather served as “Jefe Pluma Blanca de los Indios Yaquis, an Indian chief." 

He’s raising his young daughter to understand her indigenous culture and traditions and looked for preschools in his El Sereno neighborhood that reflected his values. Although many hired diverse teachers, he wasn't impressed.

Then he found Academia Semillas, a local charter school that teaches in Spanish and the indigenous Mexican language, Nahuatl. Transitional Kindergarten students learn Aztec dance and Mayan numbers. For Gavica, it was like striking preschool gold.

“Everything is cultural,” he said. “It's how you grow up, it’s how you view the world.”

Whether or not they know it, parents like Gavica are putting into practice what a National Education Association study released this year suggests: same-race instructors are "more effective in teaching students of the same race."

The study rekindled a debate over the role of teachers' racial makeup in educating children and optimizing their academic success. 

Arguments in the debate have focused on teachers in elementary, middle and high schools, but teacher diversity impacts preschoolers as well. On leaving home, often for the first time, the youngest children may be more sensitive to the ethnicities of their instructors.

For some educators, however, even more important than race is teacher quality and cultural sensitivity in seeding a child's academic success. They urge preschool teachers to immerse themselves in the community of their students and integrate their experiences into the classroom.

The issue is gaining more currency as the nation's public schools marked a milestone this fall: white children now make up less than 50 percent of the collective study body. But at the same time, teachers remain overwhelmingly white; in 2011-2012, only 18 percent of pre-K to grade 12 teachers nationwide were of color.

In Los Angeles, the issue of teacher diversity looks very different, especially in the preschools. Los Angeles Unified, one of the largest providers of preschool in the state, runs 86 early education centers and serves 26,000 children under 5. Eighty-six percent of LAUSD preschool teachers are diverse, according to the district. Over two-thirds of the children are Latino, and 75 percent of teachers are Latino or black. 

Yet even for some diverse educators, situations arise that confound them in the classroom. At a recent L.A. Unified training session run by the Anti-Defamation League, preschool directors shared their experiences dealing with challenging situations involving their students.

One teacher described how some children teased other students because their ethnic hair was different or "messy." She was able to assuage the belief that some children don't brush their hair with an activity where students designed their own doll representing themselves with different hair types. But answers to race-based situations don't always come easily. 

Training for educators is a good place to start in building cultural sensitivity, said Ernesto Colin, professor in urban education at Loyola Marymount University. But he said preschool directors need to look more deeply at the kind of education they are providing.

"There have been a lot of things that haven't worked where the education was more monolithic or Eurocentric or mainstream," Colin said.

At Rose and Alex Pilibos Preschool in Hollywood, the children are spoken to only in Armenian. School director Takouhey Saatjian said she wants her teachers to be culturally fluent so they can relate to their students, and parents want their children to maintain their cultural heritage.

"The teachers, they play a very, very important role because they are the ones that [are] like a comma, connecting the home with the school," she said.

But Carrie Rothstein Fisch, professor at California State University, Northridge, and director of the graduate program in Early Childhood Education, cautions that the teacher’s race alone will not ensure children of color succeed.

“While it can be very helpful to have a cultural match between children, family and school, more important is the overall quality of the teacher,” Rothstein Fisch said. “A high-quality teacher who is culturally attuned to the families can be a very powerful cultural broker between home and school.”

Preschool, she said, is an age when children are leaving the safety of home and preparing for the upcoming transition to kindergarten. For many children, it is their first time out of home and they need some cultural touchstones that are similar to their home lives to help with the transition.

“Teachers provide that critical link,” Rothstein Fisch said. She developed a training program called the “bridging cultures project." Her training helps teachers to engage diverse families by involving parents, a key she believes to preschool success.

Colin of Loyola Marymount agrees. 

“We would encourage educators to seek out partnerships with parents,” he said. They could do this by “living with the community and going out there to gather experiences so they know what student’s home backgrounds are like.”

His advice is for teachers to embrace the cultural practices of their students by “recognizing the diversity, appreciating it, and making room in their lives and in their classrooms for everything this city brings.”

Cristina Jacquez, an El Sereno Transitional Kindergarten teacher, believes teachers should live in the neighborhood where they teach. She has taught at the Academia Semillas elementary school for 12 years.

“I live right here in the community,” she said. “I have kids who were shy to start, they were fearful the first day or week,” Jacquez said. Seeing her around the community has “really helped them make that transition.”

When Jacquez meets parents around the neighborhood she asks about home culture and invites them into her classroom. She wants her young students to feel like their home life is “valued and respected” at school.