Nuestra Comunidad: Program gives Latino children a better school start

Almost 1,400 preschool aged Latino children have participated in an educational program offered through Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, in Sandy Springs.

The first years of learning can have a major impact on the rest of a child’s academic life. Preparing youngsters for school in this county is something parents who aren’t native English speakers can struggle with. Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church has made strides in bridging the gap for Hispanic youth in the Sandy Springs area. In the last 15 years nearly 1,400 children have participated in Los Niños Primero, an early learning initiative targeted at Latino children between the ages of 3 and 6.

Executive Director Maritza Morelli was working as a bilingual liaison for five elementary schools in the Sandy Springs area when she received the call from Mount Vernon.

“They wanted to create a program that would benefit the community and get the youth who belonged to the church involved,” she explained.

A tenth of the school age population in Sandy Springs is Latino, and the parents of these children generally lack information about how to get involved in early learning activities, according to LNP research. As a result, the children are behind up to three years when they start kindergarten, said Morelli.

Los Niños Primero offers preschool-aged children their first contact with education so that they are able to develop the skills and abilities necessary to achieve academic success, especially since many are not proficient in English.

“Children in kindergarten and those in the first years of elementary school are generally the ones who require the most attention, so we need those students to come ready. We see that the students who come through Los Niños Primero are academically prepared and they’re truly ready for the challenges of elementary school,” said Harvey Oaxaca, principal of Lake Forest Elementary School, which has the highest number of children participating in LNP.

Morelli, a psychologist and Venezuelan native, began her first year with only 17 children and by 2014, participation was up to 180.

The program consists primarily of a camp offered every summer, which includes artistic activities and even a ‘Parent Program,’ which teaches parents how to encourage and support learning at home. There is also a ‘Saturday School’ program and chorus, among other activities.

Belinda Soriano, a fourth grade teacher at Mimosa Elementary says she can tell which students have gone through the program. “Los Niños Primero is a big help to the Latino children in the community. Not only are they prepared to learn the academic skills required by the school but they also receive training in music, cultural activities, sports and arts.” The Roswell boasts the second largest number of students enrolled in Los Niños Primero, after Lake Forest.

“The program is well known within the schools because the children come to class prepared, and the parents know how to ask for a better education for their children,” said Morelli.

Ameyaltzin Palomino, a mother of Mexican descent with four children – three of whom have participated in the program– can attest to its benefits.

“My children have been part of this program before starting kindergarten. It’s an excellent initiative because it reinforces their studies and helps them to have a better academic experience,” she said.

Fifteen years after its beginning, LNP is beginning to see the fruits of its labor: those first 17 participants have graduated high school and several have been accepted to college.