Charlotte has the one of the largest populations of foreign-born citizens in the state, yet it lacks one of the most basic services needed for such families to succeed: an organized way for preschoolers to learn English before starting kindergarten.
Currently, the city has one small nonprofit bilingual preschool and two others affiliated with Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Collectively, they hold about 150 students, with a waiting list quadruple that number and rising.
The Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, which focuses on the fast-growing Latino population, is now at work on a plan to double its capacity by moving to a new site.
One possibility is to share space with the International House at its Midwood International and Cultural Center on Central Avenue. But like many nonprofits, the preschool is having to lobby the community for donations to pay what could be $3,000 extra per month in rent.
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Preschool director Joanne Tate said hers is one of the few nonprofits that would like to be put out of business.
“We’d love it if the school system would offer this kind of program, but nobody wants to pay for it because it’s expensive,” says Tate. “We have no choice but to step in to prevent these children from struggling in school and dropping out, which is often what happens when they enter CMS behind on their English-language skills.”
In 2013, Hispanics had the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and also had the lowest on-time graduation rate.
The district offers no bilingual preschool programs, due in part to concerns among some North Carolinians that it would allow immigrants to avoid learning English. The Charlotte Bilingual Preschool’s mission falls in line with that mindset, by helping children ages 3 to 5 from Spanish-speaking homes learn the skills necessary in an English-only school system.
“There’s so much ambivalence in this country on preschool education that it’s going to stay hard to get programs like this paid for,” said Tate. “Is it the government’s role or the family’s role?”
The Bilingual Preschool’s push to grow comes just weeks after the launching of a Charlotte City Council effort to make immigrants feel more welcome. The resulting Immigrant Integration Task Force includes a teacher and administrator from CMS, but it’s unclear if the group’s final recommendations will include proposals on education issues.
Santiago Wood of the National Association for Bilingual Education says bilingual help for immigrant children is a national problem. Some school districts are making it work in Texas, California and New Jersey. But the majority are stifled like Charlotte, and no one wants to pay to address the problem, he said.
“Our leaders need to stop playing footsie, put kids first, and create a national policy on this,” said Wood, calling English-only education “nonsense.”
“It’s a crock that immigrants won’t learn English. The community has to collectively say we want to create opportunities for these children and pass a bond measure. As citizens, we should share the expense of making a better community.”
Currently, the city’s bilingual preschools survive through donations and small fees paid by parents of the students. Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, with a budget of $498,000, also gets support from such entities as PNC Bank and the Leon Levine Foundation.
Conrad Wood of PNC, who sits on Charlotte Bilingual Preschool’s board, said no date has been set for the school to move, because of the challenges in finding a suitable location. This includes not only a safe and inexpensive spot, but one near the city’s Latino communities.
“Money is the biggest obstacle. I think the public in general is not aware of the need,” he said. “One of every four children born in Mecklenburg County is of Latino descent. It’s a growing challenge to have these children come into CMS prepared for the first grade.”
Lauren Cavins, director of bilingual preschool at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, says her school has 42 enrolled and just as many on a waiting list. Those children on the waiting list most likely won’t get in, and will continue to struggle in kindergarten.
“As a community, it would be great for churches that have preschool programs to offer bilingual education,” said Cavins, believing churches hold the key to solving the problem more quickly.
“Even if they just offered one class for low income children who don’t have basic English skills, it would help. This is a great opportunity for the faith community.”