The Bloomington School District is among three in the state that scored a competitive grant to help get kids better prepared for kindergarten.
April Walker said she got 26 blank stares when she asked her preschool classroom at Bloomington's Washburn Elementary to name colors on a sheet earlier this month. Only two children out of 28 could name basic shapes and colors.
"Academically, they don't know the basics," she said. "They're definitely not ready for a school setting."
That's where the pre-kindergarten program she teaches comes in. It's designed to get low-income students and students who are learning English as a second language up to speed with their future kindergarten classmates.
The program, KinderPrep, is one of the early education initiatives that the Bloomington School District is able to stress more this year after receiving a competitive $150,000 grant from the Twin Cities-based McKnight Foundation. It was one of three school districts in the state to land the grants.
The money will fund pre-kindergarten teacher training and preparations this year for expanding preschool programs like KinderPrep in the near future in the 10,000-student district. Teachers like Walker hope eventually to prove to state policymakers that the extra early education initiatives are worth state backing, too.
The extra efforts, they say, will help steer at-risk kids away from the path of dropping out long before they reach high school, as well as reduce the gap in academic achievement between white and non-white students.
"How can we narrow that gap before we get them?" said Lisa Grundstrom, grant project manager. "If we ... can't get them where we need them to be, it just gets tougher" in later school years.
The grant, which also went to Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis schools, is part of the McKnight Foundation's new focus on pre-K through third-grade literacy -- mirroring growing momentum nationwide for improving early literacy to close the achievement gap and raise graduation rates.
"McKnight is way ahead of the curve," said Tim Knowles, who leads the University of Chicago Urban Education Initiative and was part of the board that selected the three school districts for their current efforts. "It's ambitious, it's innovative and it's definitely on the cutting edge of what's going on in early education."
In Bloomington, Grundstrom said, test scores show that 87 percent of students enter kindergarten prepared academically.
The challenge, Knowles said, is to now prove to policymakers that the extra efforts are doable, cost-effective and more successful -- something he hopes schools like Bloomington will do.
"This is bringing together two galaxies in education -- early education and K-12," he said. "People recognize that kids who often need public schools the most ... are coming to kindergarten not recognizing shapes, colors or numbers. They're behind from day one."
In Bloomington, this year's $150,000 grant funds Grundstrom's job and staff training throughout the year to improve literacy among English Language Learners from staff at Knowles' Urban Education Initiative.
In January, Grundstrom will submit plans to the McKnight Foundation to consider funding up to $1 million a year for the next two years. Part of the plan is to expand the district's pre-K program, KinderPrep, and a data collection system that allows the city, Hennepin County and the school district to share information to better help families.
The district would also provide training to preschools throughout the community to help them prepare kids for kindergarten.
"It's not a business model," Grundstrom, a former kindergarten teacher, said about assisting private preschools. "It's about just getting kids ready for kindergarten."
Model for state?
At Washburn Elementary, Principal Jon Millerhagen doesn't need any convincing on the worth of pre-K programs.
Washburn is the only school in the district housing KinderPrep and as a result, Millerhagen said at-risk students are now entering kindergarten more prepared, freeing up teachers from having to catch them up to their peers.
About 30 children who are 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families or who are learning English as a second language have been placed in the free half-day program at Washburn, where about 50 percent of the students enrolled come from low-income families. The more than $80,000 cost to the program is small for the academic gains they see, Millerhagen said.
"Of the strategies we've tried to do to close the achievement gap .... I've seen the most hope from this program," said Millerhagen, a principal for 18 years. "It's a stronger, firmer foundation for kids to be successful in school."
In fact, earlier this year, results released from a University of Minnesota study showed that the average $9,000 spent on 18 months of preschool returns to society at least $90,000 in benefits per child from increased earnings, tax revenue, reduced criminal behavior and mental health costs, and other measures.
If the district gets additional McKnight funding next year, Grundstrom hopes more schools will provide proof to policymakers that early education is a worthy investment, even in cash-strapped times.
"Things have to change in terms of funding and recognition of early childhood," she said. "Begging for it isn't working. If we have a place to show [it's successful], maybe we can change the minds of our legislators."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141