MARSHALL - Results from the newly-released 2010 Minnesota School Readiness Study strongly supported educators' prior claims about the need for high-quality early childhood education.
The study, which was prepared by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), showed that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be school ready upon entering kindergarten than their more advantaged peers.
"We have kids coming in at every level of development," said Jennifer Hansen, early childhood coordinator at Marshall Public Schools. "A lot of it is based on their experiences, whether they're being read to, played with and talked to."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Young students in the 3-1/2- to 5-year-old Little Cubs Preschool group have fun using their imaginations and experimenting with wooden Tinker Toys Tuesday at Park Side Elementary School. Early Childhood Education programs are becoming more and more instrumental in future academic success for students across the state.
The report found that kindergartners entering school were most proficient in the areas of physical development (70 percent) and language and literacy (59). The students were least proficient in the areas of mathematical thinking (52), personal and social development (56) and the arts (56).
"If they're behind already, it's harder for them to catch up," Hansen said. "We can do a pre-assessment to see where a student is at, to see what the needs of the class are, but we work on all of the skills that the kids need for kindergarten. We try to pull some aside that are struggling, but really, once they're in the door, they're going to learn and improve their skills."
Marshall has three different early childhood education programs - Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE), Little Cubs Preschool and Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE).
More than 90 young students typically take part in the preschool programs, while ECFE classes average about 30 families. The ECSE numbers are also fairly consistent, Hansen said.
"We have more than 65 that are served through special education services," she said. "Some of those are in classrooms and some are home-based."
Nearly 6,000 kindergartners from 108 selected elementary schools across the state, reflecting 9 percent of the total kindergarten population, participated in the 2010 study.
The children were considered to be proficient in the skills necessary to enter kindergarten if they achieved at least 75 percent of the total points on the 32 indicators.
"What I see is more of a bigger push for academics in preschool," Hansen said. "There's more required of kindergartners when they enter school and increased standards in the school system in general. We did not even have a preschool for 3-year-olds when I started here."
According to an analysis by the Human Capital Research Collaborative (HCRC), a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the results of the School Readiness Study are also predicative of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) outcomes at the third-grade level, especially in reading and math.
Hansen said the district has been trying to get the word out there, to advocate for the importance of early learning. But she's also appreciative of other community programs that assist in the educational process.
"We're forever trying to get kids in that need to be in preschool," she said. "The academics and what they need to know for school has changed so much. Our Head Start in town does a good job of serving many of our lower income families. Their program is income-based. They do a fabulous job of reaching families. Our program has a sliding scale, too, so money doesn't become the issue and that all levels can attend."
Despite efforts across the state to close the achievement gap, the 2010 report found that 40 percent of Minnesota kindergartners did not reach the 75 percent achievement platform for overall school readiness, with students of color showing the largest readiness deficits.
In comparison, 63 percent of white students reached the 75 percent achievement level, followed by black students (57 percent), American Indian students (44) and Hispanic students (44).
"We know that one of the biggest predictors of academic success in children - especially economically disadvantaged young children and children of color - is their level of readiness when they enter kindergarten," MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in a news release. "That's why Governor (Mark) Dayton has put such a strong emphasis on investing in our youngest learners in his 7-Point Plan, and why it is imperative to continue to focus on our goals to make high-quality early education experiences available to every Minnesota child."
The School Readiness Study also revealed that 65.4 percent of female students met the 75 percent quota, compared to 54.5 percent of male students. Income and education level of the parents were also evaluated, showing that students from lower income households did more poorly than their more financially well-off counterparts and that as the level of parental education went up, so did the student's proficiency level.
"I know that literacy has been a big push in early childhood, but the kids learn best by hands-on experimenting, especially in the preschool years," Hansen said. "They learn by figuring stuff out, playing and getting along. They kind of experiment. Starting early is good. It gives them a good boost, so they can get a good start in school."
Dayton has shown strong advocacy for early childhood education by funding a quality rating system for childcare providers, supporting Race to the Top, an early learning challenge grant, appointing members to the statewide Early Learning Council and creating a new Children's Cabinet.
To assist in bringing strategic focus to early learning across the state, Cassellius also created a new Office of Early Learning at MDE.