Three-year, $3 million grant from the McKnight Foundation will give 4-year-olds developmental help.
Today's 4-year-olds will be the first to benefit from Brooklyn Center's efforts to improve third-grade reading skills.
Armed with a three-year, $3 million grant from the McKnight Foundation and state literacy aid, the district plans to significantly beef up its preschool offerings, and then align literacy from there to third grade and on into secondary school.
The Minneapolis public schools also received a McKnight grant to expand pre-K offerings at two sites.
Most Brooklyn Center elementary students currently are making gains on standardized tests, a big achievement in the high-poverty, diverse and mobile district, said Randy Koch, principal at Earle Brown Elementary. There's concern, however, because special education students are not passing, and it's possible that in the near future other gains might end.
"The resources McKnight has given us, in my mind, will make all the difference in the world," he said. "Without those resources, I believe we would continue on a downward trend. ... This is only going to support our already good work in that area."
Among the tools the district plans to use:
•Expanded free or low-cost preschool offerings for every 4-year-old in the district.
•All-day preschool, six hours a day, five days a week, for children in need of an extra boost before kindergarten. Transportation will be provided. Half-day preschool also will be available.
•Data-measuring tools that will allow teachers to tailor instruction to students' needs.
•Staff development, by the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute and the University of Minnesota's Center for Reading Research.
•Outreach to private preschool and day-care programs, as well as stay-at-home parents, in order to standardize expectations for what kindergartners should know.
All of this early effort aims to make sure that those students are reading proficiently by third grade.
"We want everyone reading by third grade," said Michelle Trelstad, director of early childhood and community education. When that happens, she said, students transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." "If they're not reading well by third grade, they will miss out on a lot."
A quality preschool program can help ensure that kindergartners aren't starting out already behind, she said.
District officials also found that for many dual-income families, anything less than a full-day program is impossible to fit around work and transportation schedules. Other families will prefer the half-day programs, to fit around work schedules, or music, sports or other activities, Trelstad said.
Though some are skeptical of whether an all-day program is appropriate for 4-year-olds, Trelstad said she's sold on the idea.
The program was created to address the social and emotional needs of preschoolers, but "at the same time, we are able to focus on the literacy and academic skills that we know they are very capable of."
The all-day program allows teachers to get in more than one intensive block of literacy training, as well as opportunities for creative play, physical activity and a good lunch.
Instruction still will be play-based, but frequent assessments will help target lessons. If an assessment shows that kids aren't grasping rhyming concepts, for example, more rhyming games will be added to the classroom routine.
Though the district has a high number of open-enrollment students, 4-year-olds who live in the district will get first priority for the expanded program. Others may enroll if there is room.
"We really do want to get the kids that live here to go to school here," Trelstad said.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409