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Gold Stars for Kindergarten Readiness

For three Central Minnesota communities, closing the achievement gap starts well before children begin school.

On the first day of class in Pierz, more than 90 percent of the kindergarteners at Pioneer Elementary School knew how to recognize letters and numbers, how to line up before heading out to recess and how to ask nicely if your neighbor would like to play—skills that will serve them well in the academic years ahead. The key to these early successes? The children were all graduates of the community’s popular kindergarten-readiness initiative.

Experts agree that mastering these skills before school officially starts can make a tremendous difference in a child’s school life. “Kids who come to school with these early childhood experiences have such a jump on it—and developmentally they’re ready to learn,” said Judith Hecht, a school readiness coordinator in Pierz. “We used to have to try to sell parents on the whole idea of preschool, but now it seems like everyone really sees the benefits.”

In fact, the most recent report from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers found that everyIFN6219_00255.gif dollar invested in preschool initiatives and other early learning efforts returns at least $8.60 in benefits to the community, about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up. That’s one reason Pierz has doubled down on its early learning strategy, using one of Minnesota’s Pathway II Early Learning grants to provide full-day preschool to families this school year. The move makes it possible to offer 400 hours of classroom time, a double dose of early learning that’s been shown to pay off in greater gains in social-emotional development, physical health and substantially higher kindergarten readiness assessments.

While some families worried their children wouldn’t make it through a full day of learning, Hecht said that by the first week’s end she heard glowing reports from even the most reluctant parents. “Their kids can’t get enough of it,” she said. “That’s when we know we’ve hooked them into school.”

Setting the region’s youngest learners up for a lifetime of academic and career success has been
 part of the Initiative Foundation’s mission for more than 13 years, said Early Childhood Specialist Tammy Filippi. Operating under the belief that nurturing young children is the shared responsibility of parents and communities across Central Minnesota, the Foundation provides support for community-based coalitions to develop a vision and strategic plan that focuses on quality early childcare and education. “While early childhood initiatives may look different from one community to the next, healthy social emotional development of children is key to their soft skills in the workforce later in life,” said Filippi. “Let’s invest in the younger years to save businesses money and frustration in the future.”

"Secure bonds with parents and other caregivers are critical to the complex web of bnrain functions that ignite after birth, firing up to 700 new neural connections every second."

Morrison County:
A Streamlined Start

Morrison County contains five different school districts, including Pierz. That can cause confusion and even some frustration for families of young children. In fact, when a coalition of Head Start, school districts and public health and human services agencies came together for a county-wide round table focused on early childhood education and kindergarten readiness, many families complained that their child had been screened as often as four or five times. 

IFN6219_00303.gifMany service agencies in the county depend on the Ages & Stages Questionnaire (ASQ), a screening tool for children under the age of 6 that helps parents benchmark developmental progress. While the ASQ is valuable for pinpointing delays that may need monitoring or interventions, there were families being screened with the same questions through different agencies.

Today Morrison County is getting ready to roll out a single hub software system that will allow all the agencies that coordinate on early childhood health and education to share the ASQ screening results. “Sharing that information means we can spend less time collecting it and put more resources into the helping the kids,” said Michelle Tautges, community health supervisor for the county’s Public Health department and the coordinator for the Morrison County Inter-Agency Coordinating Council.

That same thinking inspired the county to take a closer look at the ways it communicates with parents—particularly the overwhelming pile of fact sheets, forms and fliers that new moms and dads encounter almost the moment their children are born. With a growing body of research highlighting the critical brain development that happens from birth to age 3, Morrison County’s early childhood advocates decided to drive the message home with a simple, streamlined brochure that connects parents to resources years before they show up for their first early childhood screening. With contact points that cover prenatal nutrition, family home visits for breastfeeding support, access to the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) and other resources, the new “Invest Early” brochure, paid for in part through a grant from the Initiative Foundation’s Early Childhood Initiative, is meant to be “a one-stop shop” for resources new parents will need to navigate from birth to the first day of kindergarten. It’s available at doctor’s offices, community education centers and social service intake centers.

St. Cloud:
Close Bonds and Classroom Success

Secure bonds with parents and other caregivers are critical to the complex web of brain functions that ignite after birth, firing up to 700 new neural connections every second, according to Zero to Three, a nationwide advocacy group for early childhood development. Simple things that parents do every day—including playing on the floor, singing silly rhyming songs, or curling up with a book before bedtime—can help boost a child’s motor skills, language acquisition and social-emotional development. That’s great news for the six in 10 Minnesota preschoolers who have someone in their lives who sings, reads or tells stories to them every day, far above the national average.

"The more we learn about brain science the more it becomes clear that we need to be focused on what we can do for children between birth and three years old, because by the time they get to preschool at age four, a lot of patterns have already been set."

Unfortunately, one marker where Minnesota kids don’t fare much better than the national average isIFN6219_00342.gif in their risk of developmental or behavioral disorders—problems predicted to delay or derail educational achievement for 23 percent of pre-K children in the state. That sobering statistic helped fuel St. Cloud’s coalition of early childhood advocates to focus on social and emotional health and look at ways the community can support healthy bonds between parents and kids, according to Alexis Lutgen, community impact coordinator for United Way of Central Minnesota. Recently, the United Way launched “Read. Talk. Play. Together Everyday.” A community initiative designed to reach at least 10,000 parents and caregivers, the broad-based effort “was a reminder to parents to be in the present—turn off the cell phone or the TV and really focus on the little things that strengthen the bond with babies.”

St. Cloud’s other Initiative Foundation-supported early childhood collaboratives include Partners for Student Success, Milestones, and Greater St. Cloud Area Thrive—a coalition that promotes social and emotional development of young children.

“Having such a large immigrant and refugee population has brought us to the table around early childhood mental health faster than some other parts of the state, because we’re seeing more need in our schools,” Lutgen said, referring to the fact that over the last 15 years, greater St. Cloud has seen a surge of more than 7,200 foreign-born residents, resettled more than 1,000 refugees and serves school families that speak more than 40 different first languages.

Adverse childhood experiences are not confined to the region’s newest arrivals. In fact, in the year ahead, the St. Cloud school district anticipates that 350 students will experience homelessness—a number that has remained steady for several years.

"Every dollar invested in preschool initiatives and other early learning efforts returns at least $8.60 in benefits to the community."

The heartening news is that educators and child advocates are on the same page about how to best support the brain development of the city’s youngest citizens. “One of the changes that’s been heartwarming to me is that when I go to meetings, I’m no longer the only one in the room saying ‘Don’t forget about early childhood,’” said Marcia Schlattman, program manager for Milestones (formerly Child Care Choices), an agency that’s been focused on early education for nearly 40 years. “I think there are now many leaders and partners who understand the importance of early childhood education, and just how critical it is to get every child off to a great start.”

Big Lake:
Meeting Families Where they Live

When she first started dropping in on child care sites around Big Lake to talk to providers about how to equip kids for kindergarten, Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) parent educator Sarah Fritsch admits she encountered some resistance.

“The feelings I got from some providers was that they were afraid we wanted them to do school at their child cares, but I try to be reassuring and tell them it’s not about worksheets or sitting still to memorize your letters,” said Fritsch. “Little kids learn by moving and playing, so I’m just there to help them support their own instincts about what kids need, and to show them how to be even more intentional.”

With more than 1,100 new single-family homes built in the community since 2000, Big Lake is a draw for young families who are served by a robust set of pre-school programs baked right into the district’s two elementary schools. Demand for Big Lake’s Little Learners program for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds is so high that an extra session was added this fall. But a recent community assessment funded by the Initiative Foundation also found that the district’s high-quality early education program—which earned the highest 4-star rating from Parent Aware—isn’t the only path into the school system.

“We found that there were actually 19 different places our kids were coming from,” said earlyIFN6219_00201.gif childhood coordinator Kelly Kazeck, who said the area’s littlest learners come to kindergarten from a range of pre-K experiences—some from full-time early childhood centers near their parents’ employers, others from less formal family-based child care arrangements. Making sure every family gets the same message about the importance of early learning is now the driving force behind Fritsch’s frequent visits to living rooms and child care settings around Big Lake.

“If a parent had a bad experience with school, or if a family is facing some kind of adversity, sometimes they need that little extra support that makes them see that this is going to be a safe place to send their kids, said Kazeck. “The more we reach out, the more we see kids who are ready for school.”

Once every week last year, Fritsch dropped in on a 3-year-old girl in the care of her Spanish-speaking grandmother, who had no access to transportation. Without any early childhood education experience, the girl’s older brother had a bumpy transition into kindergarten. But after regular one-on-one sessions with Fritsch (“Every day I came, she’d ask ‘Do you speak English?’”), the girl was more than ready to enroll in Big Lake’s preschool program this fall.

When the school year ends, Big Lake’s early learning team aims to keep that curriculum going with plans to bring a new early childhood education program into the area’s public parks and playgrounds. “It’s all about meeting with families where they’re at,” Kazeck said, adding that even simple changes like launching a Facebook page to connect families with the Community Education options in Big Lake has resulted in a rise in preschool enrollment. “Once you get the right channel open with parents, it’s unbelievable how much interaction we’ve seen, and how interested they are in getting their kids off to a great start.”







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