For Minnesota's littlest learners, a new push to close achievement gap

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2014 - 10:01 PM

Pre-K programs intended to level the playing field for minority students are gaining traction

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Jenny Jabs, a KinderPrep Plus teacher at the Pond Family Center in Bloomington, helped Mia Quintana Rivera count the days on a calendar.

Photo: Richard Sennott • richard.sennott@startribune.com,

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Demarco Campbell flips through magazines in hot pursuit of the letter “E.”

It doesn’t take the 5-year-old long to find the letter, cut it out and glue it on a sheet of paper where he’s spelling out his name. For good measure, he also adds a photo of an iguana.

Spelling his name, sounding out letters and simple math come easy for Demarco, a bubbly ­little boy who’s enrolled in the Bloomington school district’s KinderPrep program.

About 92 percent of 130 students enrolled in KinderPrep last year showed up prepared for kindergarten last fall. That’s about 20 percentage points higher than the statewide average. Most KinderPrep students are poor, minority children; some are just learning English.

Many of Minnesota’s top educators believe such early-education opportunities hold the key to eliminating the state’s achievement gap between white students and students of color.

“The research is so doggone clear,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “It’s so much harder to play catch-up once you get them into the system than it is to ensure they’re off to a good start.”

The push to expand early education both nationally and in Minnesota is picking up momentum after years of debate about the level of ­dividends paid by preschool.

For example, Minnesota legislators recently approved funding increases for state school-readiness programs and early childhood family education classes, the first real bumps for those initiatives in more than a decade.

Most notably, Gov. Mark Dayton — a former teacher — said in his annual State of the State address in April that he wants to make high-quality early education affordable for every 3- and 4-year-old by 2018.

It’s a lofty goal. In 2012, Minnesota spent about $500 million a year in state and federal funds to provide child development and early education services for 84,000 children, leaving 72,000 children unserved, according to research by the Wilder Foundation. Furthermore, cuts to the federal Head Start program have created a waiting list of about 5,500 of the Minnesota’s poorest kids.

Still, a couple of powerful statewide groups have recently sprung up on the education scene in Minnesota to drum up support for expanded early education. Among them is MinneMinds, a coalition of 80 groups led by some of the Twin Cities’ most influential business and community leaders.

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s get those kids in a high-quality program now, because we know the results are going to be amazing,’ ” said Frank Forsberg, chairman of MinneMinds’ executive committee and senior vice president of the Greater Twin Cities United Way.

A paradigm shift for early ed

About five years ago, Steve Kerr spoke about the benefits of early education to a sparse group of school board members, superintendents and others. He was met with snickers and blank stares.

Recently, he spoke to the same group about early education in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where he’s director of community education. “It was a packed house,” he said. “This time there were no snickers. Instead, we got questions about how we’re doing it.”

It’s taken some time for the public to get on board the early education bandwagon. Now educators across the country are ramping up early education, recognizing research that shows crucial development occurs between birth and age 5.

While a bill to fund universal pre-K fizzled this year, legislators have dramatically increased Minnesota’s investment in early education. In addition to authorizing funding increases for early childhood family education programs and school-run programs, they granted $4.6 million for state early learning scholarships for low-income students.

That’s a far cry from the $40 million awarded in 2013, but the scholarships seem to be a fairly popular option for both Democrats and Republicans.

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  • Hannah Campbell reads in a circle to students of the Kinder Prep Plus class in Bloomington at the Pond Family Center. Her son attends the program.

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