In its 40-year history, the Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program has helped hundreds of thousands of children get ready for kindergarten.

To mark its anniversary, Gov. Mark Dayton has declared this ECFE Week, and Robbinsdale Area Schools, which piloted the program along with a handful of other sites in 1974, is hosting an open house at the New Hope Learning Center this Saturday.

The event, from 10 a.m. to noon, will feature music, performances, hands-on crafts, historical displays and birthday cake.

Monica Potter, who oversees ECFE in the Robbinsdale school district, said the statewide program educates parents about their role "as their children's first teacher." At the same time, it equips children for success in kindergarten and beyond, said Potter.

Through the years, the state program has grown dramatically; thousands of families take part, according to ECFE materials.

Minnesota is the only state that offers the program through the public school system. It's also unique in that it requires its early childhood teachers and parent educators to be formally licensed, Potter said. Moreover, in recent years ECFE has gained traction as a means of closing the racial achievement gap, she said.

ECFE helps children develop social, emotional, cognitive, physical and language skills. "The original intent of creating ECFE was grounded in research that linked the quality of the child's development from birth to kindergarten age with later school success," a statement reads.

ECFE classes, which are geared for children of different age groups and their parents, give time for parents and children to learn together and separately. Parents can get guidance from a licensed parent educator and hear from each other. Likewise, their children interact with their peers.

"There's a lot of talk these days about parent engagement, how much it helps kids," Potter said. "We can add education" about parenting. Research shows that it works, she said.

A 2012 state evaluation of ECFE found that 95 percent of parents "said they gained new skills and grew in the program," while their children also made great strides, Potter said.

A previous study also showed that parents who attended ECFE classes tended to be more involved in their children's schooling in the long term, Potter said.

In the Robbinsdale district, the program is offered at three locations: the New Hope Learning Center, Sandburg Learning Center in Golden Valley and the Eden Park Apartments in Brooklyn Park, whose tenants sometimes lack transportation to the other sites, Potter said. A total of 450 families are a part of the program.

Although it's a universal program, ECFE targets families with higher-risk factors. Half of the students in the Robbinsdale district's program qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch, according to Potter.

Families enroll on a sliding fee scale. Nobody is turned away for cost, Potter said. Buses are offered for free, and in some cases, if people can't get to a class, the district pays for cab rides, she said.

Evening classes help bring in parents who work during the day. Next year, the district plans to add Saturday classes. Also, the baby classes are free. "We try to adapt to the community's needs," she said.

The program also can connect parents to community resources and research, depending on the need, Potter said.

Learning bit by bit

During a baby ECFE class at the New Hope Learning Center last Wednesday, everyone sat in a circle on the floor. Just as class was starting, the 10 moms and one dad sang a song as their babies, some of whom sat on the floor, too, moved to the music.

Potter said that the repetition is one way the program helps children to build functions such as following directions, paying attention and controlling their bodies, which "are social skills."

"Sometimes it looks like fun from the outside, but it's intentional," she said.

Parents also learn about their children's development.

Beth Gausman, a parent educator and preschool teacher, told of a parent who asked about her child's frustration with a chocolate chip muffin. The child was trying to understand parts to the whole, a math skill. "That's something that I was able to explain to the group," she said.

Likewise, she was able to address the fact that some children were getting up and moving around during a group activity. That's normal for 2-year-olds, she said. "A parent might think that's inappropriate, but we don't expect a child that age to sit still. We still do the group time so the children can understand that they're part of a larger community. It's exciting for them to learn that," she said.

Jake Jackson, who lives in Golden Valley, attends the baby class once a week with his seven-month-old daughter, Savannah. On Wednesday, her onesie read, "Daddy's Girl," and her pacifier said, "I love daddy."

Jackson, who grew up without a father figure, is a stay-at-home dad. He signed up for the ECFE class at the New Hope Learning Center because "I wanted more education for myself," he said. "I'm learning as I go along."

Already, since the school year began on Sept. 11, "It has taught me a lot," he said. For example, on Wednesday, he learned that tart cherry juice (which contains melatonin) helps babies to sleep better. "That's helpful, because we've had some trouble with that," he said.

Jackson also is getting tips about baby-proofing his home, so he can be prepared for that next stage. "I know a lot that many other dads probably don't know," he said. "I know what moms go through."

Meanwhile, his daughter is making friends and he's connecting with the moms in the class. The parents have even started meeting outside of class. It's a chance to bond with people. All in all, "ECFE gives me an outlet. I take things back home with me," he said, adding, "I'm fortunate to be in the position where I can do this."

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at