November 17, 2009 | U.S. News | Original Article

Census Turns to Kids for Help

In Immigrant Neighborhoods, a Way to Reach Adults Who Don't Speak English

U.S. NEWS/ NOVEMBER 18, 2009


LOS ANGELES -- The U.S. Census Bureau is recruiting a new set of volunteers: kids.

Seeking to ensure strong participation in the decennial population count, especially in so-called hard-to-count neighborhoods, the bureau has decided children are key.

 U.S. Census Bureau

A children's practice sheet


That has led it to settings like Arlene Paynes's first-grade class at Union Avenue Elementary School in this immigrant enclave on the edge of downtown. Last Thursday, the class gathered to read aloud a story titled "Who Counts?"

They learned about a boy named Joey who helps his grandmother, an Italian immigrant, fill out the Census form that arrives in the mail. The grandmother and grandchild decide that those who "count" in their household are Grandma, Mom, Dad, Joey, little sister Mary -- and even Mr. Macintosh, who occupies a spare room "until he finds a job." The only one who doesn't count: their cat Clover.

It is always a struggle to get everyone to participate, but the 2010 count is expected to present new challenges. The gloomy economy has forced many people to move or seek temporary residence with friends or family, making them harder to reach. And the U.S. is still absorbing the largest wave of immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century. Many aren't native English speakers; more than 10 million are here illegally.

The bureau is rolling out initiatives here and in other hard-to-reach tracts. It is running an information campaign in Spanish-language media, sending representatives to operate booths at street fairs and distributing forms in more languages than ever.

Early next year, households nationwide will begin receiving a form with 10 questions. It's shorter than in the past, according to Census officials, and should take only 10 minutes to complete.

"Making children part of the national conversation," said Renee Jefferson-Copland, chief of the school program at the Census Bureau, might be one of the most effective tools for reaching many adults.


First graders at Union Avenue Elementary, near downtown Los Angeles, read a story last week about who should be counted for the Census.


U.S. Census Bureau

The goal of the school program is to reach 56 million students at 118,000 public and private schools in kindergarten through 12th grade. Scholastic Inc., the publishing company, worked with the bureau to develop material that could be integrated into math and social studies. Census lesson plans, accessible to schools on the Internet, are meant to help students develop map literacy, graphing and reading skills.

Most schools that participate in the voluntary program are likely to wait until just before Census questionnaires are mailed early next year. But the bureau has already distributed 900,000 maps to schools across the U.S. It also has been marketing the program to teachers' unions, school administrators and other educational groups. "We want to build noise around this initiative," said Ms. Jefferson-Copeland. The bureau also will dispatch 13 informational trucks to promote the program at school fairs and community events.

The program attempts to teach children why they and their families should participate in the Census. "Many immigrant parents will rely on children to be their interpreters" for the Census, as they do during visits to clinics and stores, said Maureen Costello, project director for Scholastic.

About 98% of the 1,206 students at Union Avenue are Hispanic and most have working-class immigrant parents. The school sits in a neighborhood typical of those that historically show a low rate of participation in the Census. Residents are mostly poor, have little education and rent their dwellings.

Like Joey in the story, many children at the school live with extended-family members or people outside their family, said Joe Nardulli, the principal.

In their class, the first graders learned how the count works. After reading the story of Joey and his grandmother, Ms. Paynes asked the children why the count was happening after 10 years had passed. "Some people have moved. Some people have come," volunteered a boy named Edgar.

Ms. Paynes also reminded the children that a decade ago, "you weren't even born."

Write to Miriam Jordan at

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A10