Racial Diversity in Preschool

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By: J. Glenn Hopkins, President/CEO

Helen Miller, the late community activist, once told the Public Schools Board, "I have never known a child that has gotten any smarter because he sat next to a child of a different race." 


Parents don't often discuss it aloud but quietly ask, does it really matter whether my child is in a racially diverse preschool?


There are parents who feel that it does matter; that it’s important for children to learn to appreciate racial differences among their peers.  America is a melting pot of colors and ethnicities, they argue, and it’s important that children learn to deal with people who are different than themselves.


Other parents feel that it does not matter.  Children are race-blind; what is important is to have them in a safe, nurturing environment where they can learn, play, and develop uncorrupted by social biases.


Whatever the feelings of parents about the issue of race, according to a controversial study recently published by Yale University, children do recognize and respond to racial differences.  How children react to these differences is the subject of intense debate.


This debate aside, what is the educational value, if any, of a racially mixed preschool classroom?  Is the learning process somehow improved or enhanced by racial diversity in the preschool classroom?  Are there lessons absent otherwise in preschool classrooms filled with children of different races and ethnicities?


Some educators argue that diversity in the preschool classroom — or any classroom for that matter — for the mere sake of diversity has little value.  Diversity must have, beyond its social justice purpose, they opine, an educational purpose at its core.  But, with regard to racial and ethnic diversity, what is the educational purpose in the preschool classroom?  What can and should we teach young children about race, ethnicity, and social equality?  Moreover, how do we do it? 


At Hopkins House, we would suggest that the more enduring classroom lessons about race and color are learned through exposure to the differences among us.  And, the best lessons we can teach are those needed to navigate successfully through the complex social structures of an increasingly complex and diverse racial and ethnic global community.


We believe that children of different races who play together, eat together, and see parents getting along, are very likely to develop positive notions about race and ethnicity. These notions, we would argue, may serve in later life to inhibit biases that, if left unchecked, may fester into prejudice. 


If the science is correct, children recognize racial differences early on.  We therefore have an obligation, as parents and adults, to do all we can to help young children see racial and ethnic differences as something to be appreciated and valued.


At Hopkins House, we expose children to music as a proxy for important life lessons.  Music is born of various colors and hues of sound.  This knowledge is a first step in understanding and appreciating the rhythms and movements of life, how dissonant and consonant notes  can work together, harmoniously, to create beautiful music, communicate wondrous feeling and emotion, tell stories, and inspire the soul. Exposure to a diversity of racial and ethnic groups can have similar positive effect.


Diversity with an educational purpose, in concert with a positive social goal, is as appropriate, we would argue, to early childhood education as to k-12 education and beyond.  While we may see things differently than Mrs. Miller, her perspective remains an interesting one indeed.


We’d love to know your thoughts.


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