I recently attended a birthday party to celebrate and honor 40 years of service by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund.

Truth be told, I think I was a last-minute invite because Edelman knew I was a Republican businessman who has been working on early learning issues in Minnesota for the last two decades. But the Kennedy Center birthday gala, and a conference the next day, afforded me a chance to share some of my own thinking at the "Investing Early In All Our Children Who Are America's Future" workshop.

I told attendees that business leaders in Minnesota and elsewhere know that sustained economic growth — as opposed to simply cutting spending or raising taxes — is one answer in better coping with the often-unsteady economic waters in our nation.

To make the growth solution work, we need to foster a well-educated, qualified workforce so the right things will happen in achieving economic self-sufficiency and job creation. Anticipated employee shortages within the decade threaten the nation's capacity for new job creation and economic viability.

We have learned in Minnesota, I told the group, that a big part of assuring the future workforce is the success of Minnesota's very youngest citizens, about half of whom start kindergarten not fully prepared to succeed and about a quarter of whom, research sadly shows, never catch up.

"You can't have a winning team with one in four of our kids sitting on the bench," I said.

Minnesota's efforts to reach the youngsters who most need a strong start have shown great progress in the last decade since former Federal Reserve Bank economist Art Rolnick calculated the handsome 17 percent annual return on investment (ROI) for effective early learning.

Rolnick and others in the business community have since successfully advanced the notion of need-based scholarships to families that are allowed to chose among the best school-readiness programs for their 3- and 4-year-olds. To measure quality, the state's innovative Parent Aware Quality Rating and Improvement System was created and implemented. In addition to state funding, the program received a prestigious $45 million federal "Race to the Top" grant two years ago.

The child care marketplace — both public and private — has thus far responded favorably to the scholarship program, improving its ability to get young kids ready for a successful kindergarten-and-beyond learning experience.

In addition, Gov. Mark Dayton's Early Learning Council and Children's Cabinet have helped to galvanize policy support with lawmakers and others.

Literacy by the third grade

It is well established that "learning to read" is the goal for youngsters to achieve by third grade and "reading to learn" is the goal thereafter.

Closely tied to starting early is the effective teaching of reading and writing to children "age 3 to grade 3," some 70,000 of whom in Minnesota are annually found to be at least a year behind in literacy skill development.

One successful program, the Minnesota Reading Corps, is now the single largest AmeriCorps program in the nation. It has gained traction in the public and private sectors, this year placing 1,100 trained "tutors" in early learning classrooms that serve 30,000 targeted youngsters. Assessments, which are required, show an 80 percent success rate for MRC readers being achieved by third grade.

I suggested that another key ally for sustained growth is one-on-one adult mentoring. The parents of half of Minnesota's kids say they'd welcome an adult mentor to help their children succeed, yet only about one in five has such a person available.

Mentoring is an integrity-based, one-on-one partnership between a trained adult and a child. The relationship, over time, fosters personal growth for the child by offering a brain to pick, an ear to listen and someone to provide a strategic push in the right direction. I have found that mentoring is all about listening and encouragement, and it can be extremely helpful from early ages all the way to adulthood.

Mentoring works best when professional training is provided and measures are taken to ensure quality and effectiveness. With the oncoming retirements within the baby boom generation, by 2020 we will have more senior citizens than children in Minnesota. These hundreds of thousands of retirees will offer young parents and their kids a potentially powerful volunteer resource.

About the author: Chuck Slocum is president of the Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He helped to found Minnesota Business for Early Learning. His e-mail is chuck@williston group.com