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New U.S. census numbers herald a greater Latino presence in the Chicago area

New U.S. census figures herald a future where Spanish is more likely to be heard inside classrooms and everything from politics to fashion and food will be executed with a Latin flair.

After a steady increase of Latinos in the area due to births and immigration, one out of every three children under 5 in Cook County now come from a Latino ethnic background, according to the recently released data.

In Chicago, more than 40 percent of children younger than 5 are Latino. In more than 30 suburbs including Carpentersville and Franklin Park, more than half of preschool-age children are Latino. In a few communities such as Cicero and Melrose Park, more than 80 percent are Latino.

What that means for the area depends on how well local schools and other community institutions can absorb one of the country's fastest-growing Latino populations, experts said.

School districts that have seen dramatic increases of Latino students during the last decade have sought to keep up with the population surge through dual-language programs and workshops for parents and teachers.

"Our goal is not to teach children English, per se," said Carol Crum, who oversees early childhood education in School District 130 in south suburban Cook County, a district where more than half of the student population is Latino. "That can be controversial. But it's about us building a strong language foundation and a pre-academic readiness for our children whatever their home language is."

In parts of Chicago and suburban communities where Latino enclaves have formed, the demand for such services often exceeds the capacity to supply them, studies show.

That has particularly been the case with early childhood education programs, which in Latino neighborhoods have seen longer waitlists as more young Latino families try to enroll their children in preschool.

A partial consequence: About 35 percent of Latino 4-year-olds in Illinois are enrolled in preschool, compared with 66 percent of white children and 54 percent of African-American children, according to a University of California at Berkeley report published last fall. READ MORE

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