Former elementary school principal Connie Garling-Squire often encountered "kindergarten surprises" on the first day of school — children who showed up having never had contact with early education. Their families may have just moved or spoke limited English, or they simply didn't connect with the school district.

"It would have been so much better for kids and families to know what schools had to offer before kindergarten," said Garling-Squire, now the South St. Paul district's early learning and equity director.

Now an innovative Dakota County program, the Birth to Age Eight Collaborative, is trying to change all that by making sure various government agencies and other groups are sharing information about families.

A full-scale rollout of the program is planned for the fall, but a pilot program with four school districts already has seen a 9 percent increase in the number of kids receiving an early childhood screening by age 4.

"We have been able to find huge numbers of people that we didn't know who were in our community," Garling-Squire said.

The effort has won several awards, including one from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs and others from national county associations. The National Association of Counties gave Birth to Age Eight an achievement award and named it one of its 100 Brilliant Ideas at Work in 2017, said association spokesman Brian Namey.

"We believe it can serve as a model for other counties," he said.

Still to come is an online portal accessible to school administrators, nurses and social service professionals to track whether individual children are developing at an appropriate pace. The Legislature gave the county a $200,000 grant in 2017 to develop the tool to track children's progress using information such as birth weight and early childhood screening results.

"Sometimes, we think we're helping … but we really don't have the data to show it," said Bonnie Brueshoff, Dakota County public health director.

The goal is to help struggling kids connect with the services they need to succeed, using more than 25 publicly funded programs. Success is measured by whether a child can read well by third grade, a metric that social scientists link to positive outcomes.

The pilot program involved families enrolled in the county's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, who were given the option of sharing contact information with school districts.

Most families consented, resulting in the names of 383 families being forwarded to school districts. More than half, about 54 percent, were previously unknown to the district, while 10 percent had an incorrect address on record.

Even if families receive government assistance, those programs aren't allowed to share information with schools owing to privacy restrictions. Officials are working with the county attorney to develop consent forms so information can be shared while abiding by data privacy laws.

The Birth to Age Eight program brings together several Dakota County departments, nonprofits such as 360 Communities and Community Action Partnership and school districts in South St. Paul, West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan, Inver Grove Heights and Burnsville-Eagan-Savage.

"Unfortunately it's true that separate units of government don't talk to each other as much as they should," said Jay Kiedrowski, a Humphrey School senior fellow. "What distinguishes [Birth to Age Eight] from others is that they were working cooperatively to solve a problem."

Sierra Hill, Birth to Age Eight program coordinator, has been surveying dozens of families participating in WIC and other county programs to see what they think of the concept. So far the response has been positive, with many hoping to sign up.

"They really liked the idea that there would be all these extra eyes on how their child is developing over time," Hill said.