Published: March 31, 2014
Minnesota was one of the first nine states awarded the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge funds in 2011 and the Minnesota early childhood education team has been racing ever since. The grant laid out ambitious goals for the state and especially for four communities called “Transformation Zones” across the state. They are:
• White Earth (Nation) Reservation in Northern Minnesota
• Itasca County in Northeastern Minnesota
• Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, an urban community in west-central Saint Paul
• Northside Achievement Zone, a 13- by 18-block area in North Minneapolis
Each community is charged with increasing the school readiness of children with high needs by improving access to high quality early learning and development programs. Each community has assessed the opportunities for early childhood programming that exist in their areas and then designed a plan for expanding access, improving quality, implementing innovative ideas and enhancing collaboration among their local early childhood programs. These activities began in 2012 and will be funded through Race to the Top until the end of 2015.
The Minnesota Department of Education has hired SRI International, an evaluation and consulting firm, to conduct an evaluation of the effectiveness of the activities implemented for the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant. They have just released the findings from their evaluation activities from the first year of the grant.
The Race to the Top application called for scholarship funding for families to access quality programs. Some of the scholarships are awarded to individual families to access quality care and some has gone to programs to made improvements or additions to their program offering. All four communities used the Race to the Top Early Learning scholarships in ways that were most appropriate for their children. Here are some of the strategies they’ve used:
• More high quality classrooms or enrollment spots were added in each community and more spots are available for children whose families are experiencing homelessness, have a disability or who are not eligible for child care assistance.
• More continuous attendance even when parents lose eligibility for Child Care Assistance, more days of programming offered each week or longer days of programming are now available.
• More opportunities for summer programming, parent support or parent education have been added to the menu of support for families.
• Professional development/training for all of the teachers and other early childhood staff have been offered in order to “raise all the boats” of quality in the communities.
• Classroom materials or physical spaces have been added or improved.
• Preschool screening has been expanded to ensure those children who need extra support are identified and served.
In addition to the program changes, there are more professionals available to families to help them understand the options they have for support. Navigators, as they are called, develop relationships with families, help them determine which options would be best for them, support them through the application process and are available for ongoing support. Since so much of learning and growth is accomplished through relationships with others, these special support people are important to the success of families and of the grant.
In addition to scholarships, navigators and support services in all of the Transformation Zones, area school districts were given incentive in the form of matching funds to use their federal Title I resources for young children to increase services or enrollment. Here is a sample of some of the strategies being used by Transformation Zone school districts:
• New classrooms were added in school district buildings or in collaborative classrooms.
• Extra services to help children catch up to their peers are provided in school district programs and in partner classrooms.
• New curriculum and assessment tools were implemented.
• Additional support for parents and children as they transition to kindergarten programs is provided in the form of a designated transition coordinator or evening transition activities.
• Parent Child classes are offered to families whose children are not enrolled in any other programs.
• Professional development opportunities for all early childhood professionals in the community are offered.
• Expanded access to preschool screening ensures that all children in need of extra instruction/support are identified and served.
You can see that the term Transformation Zone is an apt title for these four communities as they have transformed the work of many different providers into a more coherent, integrated and expanded system for their families of young children.