Scholarship approach appeals to parents, providers.
Amina Dioury of Brooklyn Center had been noticing positive changes at her daughter Sadiya's day care -- and so had Sadiya. Your Care My Care in north Minneapolis was using new educational materials and spending more time on prereading and science lessons. Sadiya, who will soon be 3, came home bursting with chatter about numbers, letters and planets.
Last week, affirmation of Your Care My Care's educational effort appeared on its Newton Avenue fence. A banner announced that the home-based care provider had received a top rating, four stars, from a new public-private partnership called Parent Aware that rates the educational efforts of Minnesota child care providers.
Similar banners were unfurled last week by child care providers in St. Paul, the Wayzata school district, and Blue Earth and Nicollet counties. The Parent Aware ratings of 250 care providers were posted online. And Parent Aware staffers were training care providers like DeSarae LeGrand at Your Care My Care to enrich the education they offer -- and paying for the improvements.
Parent Aware's public launch Wednesday was the latest of several small but significant recent moves aimed at eventually assuring that all Minnesota 5-year-olds can come to kindergarten ready to learn. A foundation is being laid for a Minnesota-made approach to early education that delivers on its advocates' promises -- one on which the state's policymakers can build. Consider:
• A pilot project offering early ed scholarships of up to $13,000 a year to low-income families in St. Paul's Frogtown and North End neighborhoods enrolled 382 families in its first two months, scores more than expected. The scholarships, along with mentoring for families that receive them, are provided by the business-and-foundation financed Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF). They can be used at child care facilities that score three or four stars from Parent Aware. Significantly, parents decide which provider to use.
• In all of the communities served by Parent Aware, state-funded allowances of up to $4,000 per year became available this year for qualifying low-income families whose preschoolers enroll in high-scoring child care programs.
• For the first time in nearly two decades, one of Minnesota's leading child care providers, New Horizon Academy, is preparing to open a center in an inner-city neighborhood. Its facility at 1295 Rice St. in St. Paul is scheduled to open Sept. 29. Enough parents in that neighborhood have been armed with state allowances and MELF scholarships to create a market for the expensive but high-quality care the firm provides, explained New Horizon Chief Operating Officer Chad Dunkley.
• Civic and corporate leaders from other cities -- notably including Atlanta, where a universal early education program has had trouble connecting with at-risk families -- have been examining St. Paul's scholarship approach.
All of that is a far cry from Minnesota's early learning story earlier this decade. In 2003 and 2005, despite evidence that as many as half of the state's kindergartners were less than fully prepared when they arrived at school, state child care subsidies for low-income families were slashed. In response, New Horizon was among scores of good-but-spendy child care providers that withdrew from poor neighborhoods or stopped serving poor families.
Fortunately, enlightened business and nonprofit leaders would not let that retreat stand. Fortunately, too, the nation's clearest voice about the economic value of early childhood education in this decade has been a local one. Art Rolnick, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has been tireless in urging government and industry to respond to what research says: Money spent to improve the learning of low-income children, from the prenatal stages to age 5, yields one of the highest rates of return of any investment a society can make.
Rolnick's ideas for targeted, high-quality intervention among at-risk families are central to the work of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, created in 2005. It is giving itself until 2011 to demonstrate how empowering and guiding needy parents to make wise child care choices can transform lives and neighborhoods. Its scholarships build on the state's early education allowances, which are funded only until mid-2009.
Those timelines send a message: Pilot programs and charitable funding can only go so far. They can start Minnesota down the path to becoming a state in which no child starts kindergarten behind. But only state policymakers -- the governor and Legislature -- can go the distance.