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 non-profit. A partner in the effort is Univision Communications Inc., a New York-based Spanish language media company, which will run 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 U.S. secretary of state, first lady and senator from New York. She is considering another White House bid in 2016 and expects to make a decision 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, plus parents.
The newly minted mayor, glancing at his wife, Chirlane McCray, said Clinton "has been giving Chirlane free lessons on how to be a first lady; they're not available in stores."
De Blasio, who was campaign manager for Clinton's first Senate race in 2000, credited her with putting early childhood education "on the map" years ago, including with her book "It Takes a Village."
Clinton said her family practiced what she advocates.
"Bill and I probably took it to the extreme, reading to our poor, little baby girl," she said of their now grown daughter, Chelsea Clinton. "We brought her to bed, and I'd sit in a rocking chair, and I'd read to her, and then I'd sing to her."
In "our little house in Little Rock (Ark.)," Clinton said, she'd sing "Moon River" to her baby. But when Chelsea was about 16 months old, she put her finger on her mother's lips "and she said, 'No sing, Mommy,'" Clinton said, chuckling.
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!" she said. "They were putting in editorial comments, asking questions."
The aim of the new campaign is to close what's known as the word gap by encouraging Hispanic families to focus on these activities for at least 15 minutes daily.
"The evidence is overwhelming that you're literally building brain cells when you talk to your child, when you sing to your child," Clinton said.
Research published by child psychologists 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 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 high school degrees.
Some parents, particularly immigrants, are reluctant to engage in educational activities in Spanish because they want their children to learn English, said Delia Pompa, a senior vice-president for programs at National Council of La Raza who serves on the Too Small to Fail advisory board.
Pascuala Natalia Leal, a 25-year-old mother of three who immigrated from Mexico as a girl, said she thinks some low-income parents feel inadequate to teach the kids. At the same time, she said, families she knows can't get their children into Head Start programs because of long waiting lists or 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.
A large percentage of U.S. children don't have access to pre-school. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union, renewed his call for universal access to pre-K.
De Blasio wants to enact a tax increase on wealthy New York residents to pay for universal prekindergarten and has named a deputy mayor whose top priority is the pre-K program.
"Strike while the iron is hot," de Blasio said of the years when young children absorb knowledge "like sponges."
Hefling reported from Washington.