A friend recommended the Northside Achievement Zone, which provided grants for the Morgans to enroll their children at Children’s First.
There Jamar will receive occupational and speech therapy in addition to teaching that will prepare him for kindergarten. But already, he has made strides academically.
“It’s like he belongs there,” said his relieved mother.
Each week, the school sends home a red bag with a new book and instructions for the parents on reading with their son and asking questions about the material. The organization also provides the Morgans with parenting classes and a counselor. The idea is that the project will guide the family until the kids graduate from high school.
A key question is whether quality preschool — without these other forms of long-term support — is enough to make a difference for other needy families in Minnesota.
The centerpiece of efforts by Dayton and state lawmakers is to expand the state’s Parent Aware system, which grades child care facilities on a four-star scale, along with grants enabling disadvantaged children such as the Morgans to attend top-rated preschools.
The rating system and scholarships were tested, starting in 2005, with $6 million raised by Minnesota business leaders, and the approach is now expanding slowly statewide. The state won’t have data until 2016 to show whether children fare better in four-star preschools, but the rating system is based on extensive research and ranks child cares on teacher training, curriculum and the amount of time teachers interact with children and parents.
“We know, based on decades of research, that these are the right quality areas,’’ said Kathryn Tout, who helped create the rating system and is now monitoring it for Child Trends, a national advocacy group.
The confidence of advocates comes from a handful of key studies, including the Perry Preschool project, which tracked 123 low-income Michigan children for 40 years starting in the mid-1960s. Those who had attended a high quality preschool, researchers found, were more likely to own homes and earn high wages as adults, and were less likely to need special education or be jailed multiple times.
A similar study in Chicago by Arthur Reynolds — now a professor at the University of Minnesota — showed higher high school graduation rates for those who participated in quality preschool. Reynolds and colleagues estimated a $10 economic benefit for every $1 spent on preschool education for low-income children.
But some worry that such investments will be fruitless if the children’s gains aren’t sustained once they enter grade school. Preschool has been a critical part of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York — the model for the north Minneapolis zone — but its impact would be muted if children go home to neglectful parents or wind up in failing public schools, said Marty Lipp, a spokesman for the Harlem project.
“It’s not an inoculation,” he said. “It’s not a polio vaccine for life.”
The Morgans are thrilled with the gains their kids have made in preschool, but believe it is only part of the long-term solution. Parenting classes helped them learn better ways to communicate and discipline their kids, and they are spending more time reading with both children.
Morgan’s habit of screaming as discipline has been replaced with “if/then statements” that help her children become more responsible on their own.
“Now it’s: ‘If you put your toys away, then you’ll get chocolate milk,’ ” she said, “not ‘Put your toys away!’’
Northside Achievement Zone counselors speak of the Morgan children going to college some day, and the parents believe it. After parenting class, they received T-shirts indicating the expected date of college graduation for their children.
Those shirts have been folded and tucked away — saved for the days when their children have done exactly that.