NEW YORK — Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio joined forces Tuesday for a cause dear to both, initiating a public service campaign encouraging Hispanic families to read, sing and talk more to their young children so they're better prepared for school.
About a quarter of all babies and toddlers in the U.S. are Hispanic, but these kids are half as likely to have family members read to them and a third less likely to have songs sung to them than white, non-Latino children, according to a recent report by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
The effort is part of the "Too Small to Fail" campaign started last year by the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. A partner in the effort is Univision Communications Inc., a New York-based Spanish language media company that will run a series of public service announcements and news programs with segments focused on the topic.
Clinton and de Blasio participated in the campaign launch at a bilingual Head Start program in East Harlem. Clinton, a longtime supporter of early childhood programs, is a former secretary of state, first lady and U.S. senator from New York. She is considering another White House bid in 2016 and expects to make a decision later this year.
Clinton, smiling and exuberant, sat at a table with the mayor, his wife and leaders from the education, business, media and Hispanic communities. She traded jokes and laughter with de Blasio, who had been the campaign manager for her first Senate race in 2000.
Glancing at his wife, Chirlane McCray, de Blasio said Clinton "has been giving Chirlane free lessons on how to be a first lady; they're not available in stores."
He then credited the former first lady with putting early childhood education "on the map" years ago — including with her book, "It Takes a Village."
Before the round table, Clinton participated in a closed-door reading session with children under 5. She emerged saying it was "one of the liveliest" reading sessions she's experienced. "It was so exciting! They were putting in editorial comments, asking questions."
The focus of the campaign is simple: tackling what's known as the "word gap" by encouraging Hispanic families to focus on these activities for at least 15 minutes daily.
Research published by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the 1990s highlighted the phenomenon in which children in professional families hear an average of 30 million more words by the time they are 4 than children of parents accepting public assistance, and 15 million more words than children from working-class families. Children with less exposure are more likely to start school behind their peers and not catch up.
Hispanic children are also more likely than their white peers to face other barriers such as poverty, frequent moves and hunger.
About a third of Hispanic children live with parents without a high school degree. Many of these parents don't understand the power of reading, singing and playing with their young children, said Sandra Gutierrez, national program director of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, based in Los Angeles.
Others, particularly immigrants, are reluctant to do educational activities in Spanish because they want their children to learn English, but the enrichment in Spanish would be good for their children, said Delia Pompa, senior vice president for programs at National Council of La Raza. Both Gutierrez and Pompa serve on the "Too Small to Fail" advisory board.
Pascuala Natalia Leal, 25, a mother of three who immigrated from Mexico as a young girl, said she thinks some low-income parents feel inadequate to teach the kids. At the same time, she said, families she knows either can't get their children into a Head Start program because of long waiting lists or they travel long distances each day so their children can participate.
"There's a lot of lack of information for families and parents," said Leal, whose daughter attends the Head Start in East Harlem.
Jose Pagan, 35, a father of two born in Puerto Rico, said many parents are just busy working so they can pay for basic necessities, but said "you have to make time for your child." His child also attends the Head Start program.
A large percentage of U.S. children don't have access to pre-school. In his State of the Union, President Barack Obama renewed his call for universal access to pre-K.
De Blasio wants to enact a tax increase on wealthy New York City residents to pay for universal prekindergarten.
Hefling reported from Washington.