Feds promise support for early education

by Mike Hanks

ECM Sun Publishers

Pledging federal support for early childhood education initiatives, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited a Bloomington summer school classroom and took part in an early learning forum July 16 as part of a swing through Minnesota.

Duncan, who has been U.S. education secretary since 2009, praised Minnesota’s commitment to early childhood education. Flanked by Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Duncan told a crowd of more than 200 gathered at a forum inside Bloomington Kennedy High School that “early childhood is an easy thing to cut back on.” In Minnesota, however, “year after year after year, you have come back and funded education.”

Duncan’s visit to Bloomington was part of a series of visits he has made across the country promoting President Barack Obama’s proposal to increase funding for early learning programs. His stop in Bloomington began with a visit to a Kindersprouts classroom, a summer kindergarten readiness program that serves 55 children who speak seven languages. Duncan, Cassellius and Bloomington Superintendent Les Fujitake watched as children participated in alphabetic exercises.

That event was followed by the forum at the high school in Bloomington.

“The world has changed,” Duncan told the audience. Unlike 40 years ago, high school dropouts have little chance of obtaining a good job and supporting a family in today’s economy. Today’s high school dropouts are “condemned with poverty and social failure,” he said.

Early education is not about identifying the intelligence or abilities of preschool children, according to Duncan.

“We want to close what I call ‘the opportunity gap,’” he said.

Duncan praised the initiative of Dayton and noted that Minnesota’s support for education is a bipartisan effort, just as it is in the real world. That bipartisan support needs to be replicated at the congressional level in Washington, D.C., he noted.

Cassellius spoke of the impact early education programs had on her, specifically Minnesota’s Head Start program, which offers programs to low-income families, including kindergarten readiness. She said Head Start made a huge difference in her life, and thanked today’s supporters of early childhood education.

“Our parents did it for us,” she said. “Let’s do it for our kids, too.”

Laysha Ward, president of Target Community Relations and Target Foundation, talked about how she, too, benefited from educational opportunities as a child from a low-income family, even though she didn’t realize it at the time.

“Apparently, I was poor,” she noted.

She and Cassellius were examples of the return on investment that is reaped from early education funding, she added, explaining that Target’s community relations and foundation invests in early education programs that work to ensure children can read proficiently by the end of third grade.

Opening the panel presentation, Fujitake talked about the Bloomington district’s Pathways to Graduation initiative that focuses on preparing students to be college and career ready by the time they graduate. The initiative starts with early childhood education.

“Early childhood starts at birth, not at kindergarten,” Fujitake said.

The district’s investment in early childhood programming began more than five years ago, he noted.

“We have not regretted that investment,” he said.

The data, technology and professional development programs available help the district refine its early education programs, he added.

Ward also endorsed the importance of performance data in education. As in business, it’s important to be able to examine the success of the work, she said.

“Data isn’t something we should be afraid of,” Ward said.

The forum audience was largely made up by those in support of the initiatives being promoted by the panel. However, there were several people who expressed disapproval of Duncan and the Obama administration, carrying signs opposing corporate and private interests in public schools and supporting teachers as the best assessors of student performance in the classroom.