A new week of preschool began at St. Paul's Childhood Center last Tuesday with 4- and 5-year-olds forming hearts with their hands, turning to classmates and issuing an enthusiastic, "Good morning!"

For a smiling Jimmy Oscar Baca Tallen, 4, the connections, as well as his presence at the center, were made possible by an early learning scholarship — assistance that Gov. Mark Dayton now wants to make available to low-income families statewide.

The governor's budget proposal boosts the scholarship program, now in its first year, from $3 million to $25 million during each of the next two years, giving more than 10,000 children access to high-rated child care and preschool programs, compared with 460 children receiving the $4,000 scholarships this year.

The proposal still must make its way through a legislative process that is expected to find Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, making a play for some of the money to be designated to expanding school-district-based preschool options.

But the early learning movement has taken hold, and few cities in Minnesota have been better positioned for it than St. Paul. The city was home to a pilot scholarship program funded by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, and was one of the first communities to embrace a Parent Aware rating system that assesses the quality of preschool providers. Today, scholarships can be used only at three- and four-star-rated facilities.

Barbara Yates, executive director of Think Small, the scholarship administrator for St. Paul, Minneapolis, Willmar and Duluth, said that when the state scholarships became available in late October, her organization saw no need to advertise, just to activate old networks. Within two weeks, she said, Think Small had enough applications for the 99 scholarships available in St. Paul. Within five weeks, it had three applications for every scholarship, she said.

U.S. also offers scholarships

Amanda Tallen and Oscar Baca Carrillo, whose son Jimmy attends St. Paul's Childhood Center, at 900 Summit Av., qualified for the state scholarship. But as Frogtown area residents, they were instead able to accept a larger federal early learning scholarship now being offered within the city's Promise Neighborhood.

Jimmy, as a result, attends for free a daylong program that could've cost his parents $285 per week. Amanda Tallen said that she considered five preschool programs before settling on St. Paul's Childhood Center. She was drawn to its strong leadership, friendly and receptive teachers, and to a curriculum that includes "handwriting without tears," a program she said is especially helpful to Jimmy, who has been receiving therapy to build his fine motor skills.

Tallen also became the envy of three Spanish-speaking friends who like her bring their kids to early childhood family education classes at St. Paul's Homecroft Early Learning Center. One friend said, "I think I should move to Frogtown," Tallen said.

Early learning programs have been championed by business, community and education advocates as a way to close the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their more affluent white peers. An oft-quoted statistic from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis holds that for every dollar invested in quality child care or preschool programs, society receives $16 in benefits.

Cash comes from many pots

The St. Paul School District offers prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds through a combination of funding sources that include a voter-approved levy, a ­McKnight Foundation grant and state school readiness funds.

This year, 1,100 students are attending pre-K programs, with another 747 on waiting lists. In testimony before a state House committee earlier this month, a district administrator said that students entering kindergarten after having attended a district pre-K program were further along in the areas of reading, math, spelling and vocabulary than those who did not.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, said more funding is needed to expand district-based preschool opportunities. He has no issue, he said, with state scholarships being used at quality child care facilities. But, Dooher said, the public school system, "a known entity for every community," is a better vehicle to ensure every student had access to early learning programs.

Yates said not all districts have preschool programs. A scholarship model offers greater flexibility, and empowers parents to make choices, she said. Yates noted that the St. Paul district could collect $4,000 from qualifying families in the future because its programs carry four-star ratings.

Mayor backs effort

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, whose office has worked closely with early learning providers, supports efforts to "expand early learning scholarships and appreciates that some designation of funds for school-based pre-K programs will help those programs plan for expansion ... in a more timely manner," said Jane Eastwood, the mayor's education director.

Tallen had considered placing her son in a pre-K program through St. Paul schools, but worried that he might not gain a spot. With his current school being of such high quality, she said, she intends to keep him where he is. Jimmy should be a kindergartner in the fall of 2014.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036