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Janitors spreading value of early education among immigrants

Veronica Duron wants Johan, her whip-smart three-year-old, to go to preschool.

He already knows his numbers and colors, she said, but he needs to learn social skills, like how to play with other children. “Everything is mine, mine, mine,” Duron said of her son.

Both Duron and her husband, William, are janitors working overnight shifts in big L.A. office towers. 

The fact she's searching for a preschool speaks to the success of a program sponsored by the UCLA Labor Center to reach immigrants with information about the value and availability of free or reduced-cost early education — and to do this with janitors.

With the push to expand preschool to all children now on the national agenda, communicating with parents in some communities about the importance of early education remains a hurdle. A recent Migration Policy Institute report found children with an immigrant parent are being left out of early education.

It’s a problem that is widespread, says Janna Shadduck-Hernández, faculty member at UCLA and project director at its Labor Center, which has extensively surveyed janitors over the years to find out their needs. Education for their children tops their list of concerns, she said.

“This was above immigration reform, above housing, above economic issues, [above] healthcare,” she said. “[The] number one issue was ‘ improve my kids educational opportunities,’ and that was also early childhood.”

Yet learning how to find early education opportunities is difficult for communities newly arrived in the U.S. or challenged by language barriers and other life hurdles.

Even when some learn or know the importance of early education in child development, immigrant parent still encounter problems, such as finding a preschool for their children.

In Lynwood, where Duron lives with her husband and two sons, the family has not been able to secure Johan a preschool spot. Long waiting lists, endless meetings and paperwork forced Duron to look elsewhere.

“Where I live, there are no openings,” she said. “I'll have to put him in a preschool in the city where my sister lives.”

Duron and her husband have been teaching Johan during the day.While this allows them to be with Johan during the day, they say they fight exhaustion constantly.

Like most janitors, Duron starts work in the early evening and arrives home from work around 3 a.m. She sleeps a few hours until her kids wake up around 7 a.m.

Few of her co-workers with young children have them in any kind of preschool, she said. Some think their children are too young to be in school, others don’t trust strangers to look after their toddlers, and most are unaware that they qualify for Head Start or free state preschool, she said.

Last year, the UCLA Labor Center received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to train low-wage working immigrants to better advocate for their child’s education. 

Shadduck-Hernández and her team at UCLA partnered with a janitors union that had contact with the people the center sought to reach. SEIU United Service Workers West's nonprofit educational arm, the Building Skills Partnership, began working with the UCLA team to identify issues to work on.

For janitors who are parents of small children, there is a significant focus on how to navigate the complicated early education system.

“To be able to register your child, to get into a program, then you know there’s fear around how do I have to present my documents, be that immigration or my working papers or my paystubs,” Shadduck-Hernándezz said. “All of these things become very overwhelming and many parents say, ‘Well, let's just wait off until kindergarten.’”

A growing body of research shows that when children enter kindergarten with no formal preschool, they don’t do as well as their peers. But low-wage immigrant families remain some of the most excluded from preschool. In New York City, where Mayor De Blasio swept in a vast publicly funded pre-K program, a new report finds that it is mostly benefiting well-off families and children already enrolled in preschool.

To include more immigrant janitor families in early education, the UCLA team is using a “train the trainer” model. Shadduck-Hernández said they knew from the outset that the most effective teachers would be janitors themselves.

“This project is training 15 to 20 janitor parents to be leaders around early childhood education, teaching co-workers in buildings like the Wells Fargo building or the U.S. Bank building, to talk to their co-workers about early childhood education opportunities.”

One of the leaders, Marcia Gomez, bustled out of the U.S. Bank building in downtown L.A. late one evening. She had just talked to workers on their break and next heads back to her workplace, the north tower of the Wells Fargo building where she has cleaned up after bankers for 25 years.

In previous years, Gomez talked to fellow janitors about wage increase battles and benefits. Today she is training them on education issues. She’s helping janitors understand how to better advocate for their children at school, how to get them the resources and services they might need, how to ensure they start in preschool, and get to college.

Gomez was divorced years ago and raised three children as a single mother. She knew little of the American education system, and learned it along the way. One child graduated college and is now an aviation mechanic. Another is in college and the youngest is 17. She said she uses her own kids as examples of how children of immigrants can achieve when she talks to other janitors.

“I do it for my family,” she said. “We have many co-workers who don’t know that education begins early, [that] to spend time with our little ones is part of their education. So I tell them what I’ve learned and give them practical tips because I’m a janitor just like them.”

Shadduck-Hernández said this approach is a new model for workplace relations where employers listen to the concerns of their employees and make accommodations to help them get skills to improve their lives.

In the case of their janitors, employers allow the educational trainings during break times. Past classes have included learning English and cleaning while being environmentally friendly.

It’s a low-cost way for employers to invest in their workers, said Shadduck-Hernández, and “we would have a potential to start a workplace model and maybe set some new national trends around workplaces being the focal point where we can bring new light onto the crisis in early education.” 

Part of the project will also help parents take tours of preschools and talk with early childhood directors about classrooms that are sensitive to different cultures. 

“There’s a lot of fear about what is child care and is that going to be so drastically different from my home life and my background and the language I speak,” Shadduck-Hernández said.

UCLA’s Labor Center and Building Skills Partnership further organizes family outings. On one Sunday morning, a group of janitors and their children head for the California Science Center; Gomez wanted to make sure that the janitors with kids under five knew of the free trip.

When Veronica Duron’s 9-year-old son Kevin saw the spaceship Endeavor at the science center, he excitedly exclaimed: “I’m going to be an engineer!”  

His mother hopes that with a good start in preschool, Kevin's little brother will also learn to dream big.