Mott Haven parents support mayor’s pre-k push

A tutor helps a

A tutor helps a student with her homework assignment at Abraham House on Willis Ave.

Local families need more early education, they say

Without the Abraham House afterschool program on Willis Avenue, Evelyn Gil says she never would have earned a scholarship and a chance to study in London.

Gil, who is now a junior in high school, says the Mott Haven nonprofit program helped her complete her homework assignments when she was in elementary school while her mother worked. Her three younger siblings are now enrolled in the same program Gil credits for her own success in school. Gil’s mother, Alberta Herrera, says that the program has been instrumental in her children’s education.

“I learned English on the street, and I’ve never gone to school,” said Herrera, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1990. As the eldest child, she sent the money she earned while working back home to her family.

Hispanics account for 70 percent of the population in the South Bronx, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. Because many immigrant parents work long hours, they depend on pre- and after-school programs to help their children with homework. And because most speak little English, they need those programs in order for their kids to overcome the language barrier.

Immigrants were among hundreds of Bronx parents who rallied in Albany on March 5 to support Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to provide universal pre-kindergarten education. They say that existing preschool programs in daycare centers are inadequate.

Yonancy Dejesus came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1990, and is president of the parent association at P.S. 114 in Highbridge. When her daughter, Nileyshka Vasquez, was three, Dejesus tried to find a daycare center where her daughter could learn English, but there were no openings. Her daughter instead stayed home, watching TV. Dejesus couldn’t find an affordable program until Vasquez was almost 5.

“She was not able to write her name when she started kindergarten,” Dejesus said, adding that Nileyshka, who is now 10, has fallen behind her peers. Nileyshka now attends P.S. 114’s afterschool program.

In 2011, nearly 19,000 children between 3 and 5 were enrolled in city-sponsored Head Start programs, according to the city’s Children’s Services agency. Children from the South Bronx accounted for just three percent of those registered.

Early education in Mott Haven is the worst in the city, according to a 2013 report by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, an advocacy group that measures the well being of children across the city. Barely a quarter of elementary and middle school students from the neighborhood met citywide reading standards, according to the report. In addition, the Bronx consistently has the lowest graduation rate of the five boroughs, the report stated. Early education programs are crucial for children from immigrant families as they start out in the American educational system, say childhood learning experts.

“Sometimes, all the qualities and capabilities of immigrant families are not recognized and not valued in the school,” said Jennifer Keys Adair, assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Texas at Austin, adding that the programs allow kids to learn without having to take tests they don’t have enough English to pass.

Kirza Sanchez, executive director of the afterschool program at Abraham House, said afterschool programs are especially helpful for children for whom resources are unavailable at home, which includes most immigrant families in Mott Haven.

“Most of them don’t speak English, so they’re not able to offer help, even if they want to,” Sanchez said, pointing out that many homes of immigrants lack computers and other basic learning tools.

As a child of immigrant parents, Sanchez  knows firsthand how immigrant families struggle in low-income communities. When she graduated from Columbia Law School, she started working for the Children’s Aid Society before coming to Mott Haven to work on early childhood education initiatives.

“We prepare students to become self-confident and help them break the cycle of poverty,” she said.

There are 20 afterschool programs for third-to-eight-graders in Mott Haven, Melrose and Port Morris, including public schools and community centers, according to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. Like the other nonprofit groups providing the programs, Abraham House must raise money every year to keep its programs going.

Sanchez says she wishes she could accept all the families that apply for their children to participate in the afterschool program, but budget constraints force the center to turn many away.

“There’s a huge need for more,” she said.