“I think what we’re seeing is a true paradigm shift,” said Kristen Stuenkel, director of Columbia Heights Public Schools’ community education. “We’ve all talked about developing a system that serves students in preschool through 12 grade. But now it’s actually happening.”
Last fall, most of the students in Jenny Jabs’ Bloomington preschool class could not spell their names, count much higher than 10 or recognize letters. Four spoke no English.
But today, as Bloomington’s KinderPrep Plus program winds down, it’s a vastly different story. On a recent assessment of prekindergarten skills, 100 percent of Jabs’ students were considered “ready to learn.”
Jabs has even higher expectations for her students, most of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. “College,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they are going to go.”
When early education advocates need proof that high-quality programs pay big dividends, they point to school districts like Bloomington, Anoka-Hennepin and St. Paul.
They’re among a few Minnesota districts that have made significant local investments in early education and tracked preschoolers’ performance.
A study conducted by Bloomington Public Schools showed that KinderPrep students had an average score of 82 on an early literacy assessment — almost twice the average score of students with similar backgrounds who were not enrolled in the program.
Anoka-Hennepin’s School Readiness program has seen similar results. Of 1,300 preschool students enrolled for 2012-13, about 38 percent had skills that would be considered “ready for kindergarten” in the fall. When they were assessed later that spring, about 90 percent were ready.
“It’s amazing the competence and confidence they gain in a year,” Kerr said.
‘Great value on investment’
Despite recent efforts to expand early education in Minnesota, thousands of kids from low-income families don’t have access to good preschool programs and show up to kindergarten unable to count to 20 or recognize letters in the alphabet.
State education officials estimate that the $44 million invested in early learning scholarships in 2013 and 2014 will cover only about 10 percent of all qualifying children in Minnesota. Similarly, there are 5,500 income-eligible Minnesota children on the waiting list for Head Start programs.
“We are talking about the poorest of our state’s children,” said Cassellius, who attended Head Start as a child. “They cannot afford to wait.”
MinneMinds members share that sentiment. Over the past two years, the coalition has been squarely behind the successful push to increase funding for state early learning scholarships.
“I’m very optimistic that the leader of our state understands the value of early education,” Forsberg said. “We see it as an amazing opportunity in education, and talk about getting a great value on the investment.
Also championing early education is Generation Next, the Twin Cities group dedicated to eradicating the achievement gap. Its leader, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, says it hopes to use data to identify which efforts are paying off, particularly for low-income students of color.
Demarco’s mom, Hannah Campbell, says that without Bloomington’s KinderPrep Plus program, which also provides free before- and after-school care for Demarco, he probably would have to stay home with her because she can’t afford day care.