Demarco Campbell flips through magazines in hot pursuit of the letter "E."

It doesn't take the 5-year-old long to find the letter, cut it out and glue it on a sheet of paper where he's spelling out his name. For good measure, he also adds a photo of an iguana.

Spelling his name, sounding out letters and simple math come easy for Demarco, a bubbly ­little boy who's enrolled in the Bloomington school district's KinderPrep program.

About 92 percent of 130 students enrolled in KinderPrep last year showed up prepared for kindergarten last fall. That's about 20 percentage points higher than the statewide average. Most KinderPrep students are poor, minority children; some are just learning English.

Many of Minnesota's top educators believe such early-education opportunities hold the key to eliminating the state's achievement gap between white students and students of color.

"The research is so doggone clear," said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. "It's so much harder to play catch-up once you get them into the system than it is to ensure they're off to a good start."

The push to expand early education both nationally and in Minnesota is picking up momentum after years of debate about the level of ­dividends paid by preschool.

For example, Minnesota legislators recently approved funding increases for state school-readiness programs and early childhood family education classes, the first real bumps for those initiatives in more than a decade.

Most notably, Gov. Mark Dayton — a former teacher — said in his annual State of the State address in April that he wants to make high-quality early education affordable for every 3- and 4-year-old by 2018.

It's a lofty goal. In 2012, Minnesota spent about $500 million a year in state and federal funds to provide child development and early education services for 84,000 children, leaving 72,000 children unserved, according to research by the Wilder Foundation. Furthermore, cuts to the federal Head Start program have created a waiting list of about 5,500 of the Minnesota's poorest kids.

Still, a couple of powerful statewide groups have recently sprung up on the education scene in Minnesota to drum up support for expanded early education. Among them is MinneMinds, a coalition of 80 groups led by some of the Twin Cities' most influential business and community leaders.

"We're saying, 'Let's get those kids in a high-quality program now, because we know the results are going to be amazing,' " said Frank Forsberg, chairman of MinneMinds' executive committee and senior vice president of the Greater Twin Cities United Way.

A paradigm shift for early ed

About five years ago, Steve Kerr spoke about the benefits of early education to a sparse group of school board members, superintendents and others. He was met with snickers and blank stares.

Recently, he spoke to the same group about early education in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where he's director of community education. "It was a packed house," he said. "This time there were no snickers. Instead, we got questions about how we're doing it."

It's taken some time for the public to get on board the early education bandwagon. Now educators across the country are ramping up early education, recognizing research that shows crucial development occurs between birth and age 5.

While a bill to fund universal pre-K fizzled this year, legislators have dramatically increased Minnesota's investment in early education. In addition to authorizing funding increases for early childhood family education programs and school-run programs, they granted $4.6 million for state early learning scholarships for low-income students.

That's a far cry from the $40 million awarded in 2013, but the scholarships seem to be a fairly popular option for both Democrats and Republicans.

"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."

Getting results

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.

"It's a blessing," she said. "I'm not sure what we'd do without it."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469