I grew up in what is often referred to as a “mixed income community,” an attempt made by local municipalities to correct the social ills bred by segregation. The city of Sunnyvale in California mandates that a certain percentage of housing in affluent neighborhoods be offered at a discounted rate, essentially asking the question: “What happens if we give poor people access to the same resources and environments as rich people?” 

Although far from perfect, it is safe to say that these initiatives are illuminating. It would not be an exaggeration to admit that growing up in a mixed income community had drastic effects on my social, emotional and educational outcomes. While being poor and black in a very white and wealthy neighborhood had its mental and emotional tolls, what I lost in community and solidarity, I, for better or worse, gained in access and privilege. 

Growing up in this environment meant that I attended well-funded schools, had smaller student to teacher ratios learned in a climate that wasn’t heavily policed, had access to the tools I needed to go to college and learned how to use (and demand) resources to help me matriculate through the higher education experience. 

Too often though, race and income are determinants of educational outcomes. Access to affordable housing in mixed income communities generally chalks up to luck, such as your place on a waiting list or your ability to meet the incremental increases in rent. I am dismayed when I think about how drastically different my life may have turned out if my parents were not afforded this opportunity. What furthers this distress, is thinking of the children who aren’t given access to healthy environments to learn, grow and actualize their goals. They are not provided the opportunity to reach their full potential. 

It is no surprise to us that racial and economic segregation in American cities has led to an education gap that fuels and sustains inequality. We are familiar with the ways in which school funding is tied to property tax. We understand that white flight left many neighborhoods resource deprived, and we are intimately familiar with financial discrimination that robbed (and still robs) black people from buying and investing in property. 

What we might be less familiar with are the numerous windows of opportunity throughout a child’s life that are never opened, particularly in their early developmental years. The links between poverty, education and housing are instrumental in understanding American social mobility. A key component of this puzzle is the role of early learning, especially for children of color ages three to five. High-quality, affordable pre-K allows more children to start kindergarten with the proper capacities they need to have a sustainable educational career. 

“Education is the only billion dollar industry that tolerates abject failure” – Geoffrey Canada

Investing in pre-K not only helps children get ahead, but it prevents children of color from falling behind.

Research has shown  prioritizing early education has lasting intergenerational effects on communities, eventually working toward rectifying the longstanding inequities in American society. Compared to their white peers who are enrolled in pre-K schooling, Black and Latino children are anywhere from 9 to 10 months behind in math and 7 to 12 months behind in reading when they enter kindergarten. This disparity is largely due to inconsistencies in the quality of learning environments.  

Disparities in quality among early learning programs are mostly due to how difficult it is to pay for high quality pre-K schooling. A significant number of parents making over $97,000 annually enroll their kids in private programs, which tend to surpass public and affordable programs in rigor, student to teacher ratios and quality of learning. 

The impacts of high quality pre-K have deep and transformative effects on children of color. Researchers have found that children who have had early experiences of economic scarcity gain more from early education programs and it is also proven that high quality pre-K programs can significantly impact the educational outcomes for students that come from bilingual households. 

As black millennials grow into early adult stages of their lives, it is critical that we advocate for and spread awareness about the challenges parents face when enrolling their children in early learning programs, even if we aren’t at that stage in our life. Institutional racism permeates the education system making it difficult for parents of color to navigate with ease. Garnering support for early education professionals, political advocacy and supporting evidence-based curriculum can help us move toward a more equitable early learning landscape that invests in and supports children of color.

What are your thoughts on ways we can strategically advocate for high quality pre-K schooling for children of color? Let us know in the comments below. 

The views in this piece reflect those of Blavity, with funding provided by the Gates Foundation