University of Minnesota
Young children and their families will reap the benefits of three large grants to Minnesota and the University of Minnesota from the U.S. Department of Education.
Three-pronged push for children
How three federal grants will change children's lives
By Deane Morrison
A new day is dawning for children who live in poverty or other circumstances that stymie their ability to excel in school.
In December Minnesota and the University of Minnesota received three grants, totaling $88 million, from the U.S. Department of Education to give children at risk the kind of start in life they deserve.
The support will put child development experts at the University on the ground with numerous partners, turning the early-education landscape for thousands of children into something resembling a level playing field.
"Experiences early in life affect the quality of the brain's architecture, creating a firm or weak foundation for all learning that comes later," says Megan Gunnar, director of the U's Institute of Child Development. "Studies of early development show the achievement gap is in place long before children reach school. If we are to close it, we need to invest in the development of our youngest citizens. These three big grants are an excellent start."
Race to the Top (RTTT) Early Learning Challenge grant
• To Minnesota, eight other states
• $45 million over five years to improve outcomes for Minnesota's preschool children
"You have a lot of kids who are, for example, living in poverty in both urban and rural situations," says Scott McConnell, an educational psychology professor and affiliate in the College of Education and Human Development's (CEHD) Center for Early Education and Development (CEED), which helped obtain the grant and will have a role in implementing it. "The goal is to improve school readiness, to improve outcomes, for all Minnesota's young children," McConnell says.
The RTTT grant will build a statewide infrastructure to help families and will focus some of its work in Hennepin, Ramsey, Blue Earth/Nicollet, and Itasca counties. Included is North Minneapolis' Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), which has the state's highest poverty rate.
It will mean, for example, a new chance for 3- and 4-year-olds to enroll in high-quality preschools, where they will have sustained access to books, educational toys, and skilled teachers. A system that rates early childhood programs and reports those findings to parents will be extended statewide so that all parents can find high-quality programs. RTTT will also fund scholarships for low-income children, plus monitoring of preschools and efforts to improve those of lower quality.
CEED's role in both the Race to the Top and Promise Neighborhoods grants is strengthened by its presence at the University's Urban Research and Outreach Center (UROC) in North Minneapolis.
Promise Neighborhoods grant
• To NAZ, a collaborative that includes CEED, Minneapolis Public Schools, and 50-plus community organizations
• $28 million over five years; focuses on families to boost children's success
The initiative is an all-out drive to give children the support they need to get ready for college, starting at birth. One key to the effort is ensuring an engaged and nurturing home environment.
To do that, NAZ will help parents and other family members remain active players in their children's lives. NAZ parents will work with peer coaches to get ongoing assistance in setting and reaching goals for their children and families, as well as help finding resources already available.
Neighbors will find new friends as families are introduced to others with like-aged children. Whatever the need, Promise Neighborhoods aims to reach 1,200 families in the NAZ, McConnell says.
Children who may not otherwise have had the chance will now find early care and education settings "that receive more resources to improve the quality of care, and who will become part of an ongoing quality improvement system," says Amy Susman-Stillman, co-director of CEED. "Children will benefit because their caregivers will be more knowledgeable and skillful about how to prepare them for kindergarten."
Investing in Innovation (i3) grant
A wide embrace
The i3 grant will be put to work in six public school districts—St. Paul; Virginia, Minn., in partnership with Arrowhead Head Start; Chicago; Evanston/Skokie, Ill.; Normal, Ill.; and Milwaukee. It will serve more than 9,000 children ages 3 to 9. Read more.
• To CEHD, on behalf of the Human Capital Research Collaborative (HCRC); six school districts in three states; other partners
• $15 million over five years; expands the Child-Parent Center (CPC) Education Program, a proven preschool-to-third-grade intervention (see sidebar)
Begun in Chicago in 1967, CPC gives children in low-income neighborhoods an intense, continuous system of educational and family support. The model "starts with a very strong preschool program that emphasizes early literacy and parental involvement," says project director Arthur Reynolds, an Institute of Child Development professor and HCRC co-director. "Kids will see parents more at school, interacting and attending workshops with other parents, volunteering in the classroom, and furthering their education and career training."
Reynolds directs the Chicago Longitudinal Study, which established CPC's effectiveness and helped convince the U.S. Department of Education that investment in this kind of effort yields high dividends in terms of productive citizens down the road.
"Cost-benefit analysis indicates a return of $8 to $11 per dollar invested in the program, which is among the highest of any social program," Reynolds notes. "The duration and intensity of this exemplary intervention will enhance excellence in school and reduce the large achievement gaps that exist by family socioeconomic status."