Early childhood pilot shows promise

Discovery Learning Extra gives at-risk kids a chance to catch up before they reach kindergarten


by Jim Boyle


When Hooper Thomas showed up at Handke in the fall of 2012 for Discovery Learning Extra, the 4-year-old boy’s vocabulary barely surpassed a dozen words. The teachers there could understand even fewer words that he offered.

“He was a quiet and shy little guy,” recalled his teacher Rebecca Dey.

Hooper used charades and sound effects to communicate his needs.

Photo by Jim Boyle A classroom of children responded to their teacher in their Discovery Learning Extra program that’s now in the second year of a pilot.
Photo by Jim Boyle
A classroom of children responded to their teacher in their Discovery Learning Extra program that’s now in the second year of a pilot.

By the end of the school’s preschool year, the Elk River boy had met all the benchmarks that he was tested on to gauge his kindergarten readiness. He was one of 51 children to take part in an intense preschool program for at-risk 4-year-olds. Each has their own success story, and District 728 officials like Charlie Blesener, the head of District 728 Community Education and director of community engagement, and Kathy Simonson, the manager of Early Childhood Family Education and School Readiness, are gunning for continuing and expanding the program. The challenge, of course, will be funding.

Simonson, Blesener and Dey reported on the pilot, its success and some ideas on how the take it to scale at a recent meeting of the Elk River Area School Board.


Discovery Learning pilot helped

“I knew he was capable of talking,” Hooper’s father Allen Thomas said. “I just couldn’t get him to talk. Nothing worked.”

At least nothing that had worked for Thomas’ first three children. He and his wife had tried speech therapy. They tried a kinder care-type child care environment with a curriculum. That experience brought tears to the boy’s eyes and a fear of continuing on. He was pulled from that center.

“I didn’t want him to associate school with something bad,” Thomas said.

It was with trepidation his parents enrolled him last summer in the Discovery Learning Extra, the pilot program tried for the first time last year. The program was a more intense version of the district’s patented Discovery Learning program that puts children in a classroom setting for 4 1/2 to 7 1/2 hours a week and includes a parent component.

The pilot program calls for 10 to 12 1/2 hours a week and provides a more intensive and intentional approach for children deemed at risk of not being ready for school at 5 years of age. It also includes a parent component.

Hooper was one of 36 to attend the program at Handke in Elk River. Another 15 attended a similar program in Zimmerman.

The program is for children who have one or more of the following situations:

•Comes from a low-income family.

•Has English as a second language.

•Has behavioral or developmental concerns.

•Is a foster child.

•Comes from a family with multiple challenges.

They must also be from the Elk River Area School District, be 4 years old before the Sept. 1, not qualify for special education services and not be eligible for Head Start or be on a Head Start waiting list.

Some of the students in Hooper’s group spoke Russian, Spanish, Laos and Vietnamese.

Hooper’s turnaround was swift as the current in the Mississippi River behind the homes and businesses along Main Street.

“He opened right up,” Thomas said. “After the first day, he was ready to go back.”

As the year went on, he began to write his name and share at circle time.

“He learned my name,” Dey told members of the Elk River Area School Board as part of Simonson’s and Blesener’s presentation. “He learned all the children’s names in the class and he made a lot of friends.”

By the end he was able to hit all his suggested benchmarks associated with kindergarten readiness.

“We take for granted children talking,” Thomas said. “You hear little kids talking to each other or (you hear kids in) the ‘why’ stage where they ask why about everything. You really don’t appreciate that until you don’t hear it.”

Dey said Hooper’s story is one of 36 stories worth telling, each a little different but all telling of a pilot she and her colleagues in the District 728 Early Childhood Family Education program say should be replicated many times over.

“Time on task makes a difference,”  Blesener said. “When you provide more of something, a second helping if you will, you can move the needle further.”

Blesener said there were 51 lives positively impacted by the program.

“I think we changed outcomes for the kids who were fortunate to be in our program,” he said.

There’s another 50-plus kids in the second year of a pilot program. Blesener, Dey and Simonson say ideally the district would serve a few hundred kids in it.

Children who come to school prepared are far more likely to meet set standards and expectations. Those who can read well by the end of third grade are predicted to have success in school and in life. Those that don’t are expected to have an uphill battle, Blesener said.

“Tennessee uses the number of non-readers at the end of third grade to project the number of prison beds that will be needed,” he said. “And data on third-grade reading can be predicted by the academic skills children have when they enter kindergarten.”

The Elk River Area School District has about    6,000 children from birth to age 5.

“The foundation of what we do is about bringing parents in and helping them be the best teachers they can be for their kids,” Simonson said.

Studies show that how a child performs at 3 years of age predicts how that child will perform at age 16 with 97 percent accuracy, Blesener reported.

Discovery Learning programs are offered to children as young as 3 years old. They build on other offerings for younger preschoolers.

The district has been given the highest mark available for its program. The Parent Aware program gave it a four-star rating.

Discovery Learning uses research-based curriculums supplemented by Minnesota Reading Corps and the TACSEI program for social emotional growth.

“Because of the coaching and overall effort put forward, we were one of three programs to be awarded the pilot program,” Simonson said. “The state looks at us as all-stars.”

Early education teachers meet every week in a Professional Learning Community.

On many accounts, the district is more than 20 percent better on its Minnesota Reading Corps comparisons.

“This is what makes us an elite Minnesota Reading Corps program,” Simonson said. “We are serving more than double the percentage of the free and reduced (lunch qualifying) families who meet that qualification in our programs. We’re serving a lot of families who wouldn’t be able to afford a preschool program with out this option.”

Thomas is thankful, and he wrote Dey at the end of the year.

“I always wanted to have that little conversation that you have with little kids,” he said. “They’re so innocent and so honest. I just wanted to have that conversation.”

He’s had that now and much more.

“It has made me so happy,” he said. “It has made my wife happy,  my sisters, my parents, because he touches everyone’s heart.

“Even the teachers and the other kids. They all love Hooper. He has that personality. This program brought out who he is. We’re all able to enjoy and appreciate Hooper for who he is.”

Blesener praised the success during the presentation to the board. But he also spoke of the small percentage of students that still didn’t hit the benchmarks.

He challenged others in attendance to think about preschool kids they know.

“It might be a blood relative or it might be the snot-nosed neighbor next door,” he said. “That someone who has some significance to you.

“You have that picture in your head. What if that kid was one of the 6 percent that after going all year still didn’t (hit the mark).”

Blesener challenged the board to consider one of its 40 strategic results calling for quality, coordinated early education services.

“What we do now makes a difference when they’re third-graders,” he said. “Reading at the end of third grade is an incredibly accurate predictor of lifetime success.

“It’s like being on the scale. It’s going to tilt one way or the other. We want to make sure its tilting to be a reader.”

Blesener said the district has an opportunity to build on a competitive advantage for the district with its early education program and the direction its heading.

“We’ve got a phenomenal early education program,” he said. “I think it can differentiate what we do to our neighbors and anybody else in the state.

“When we can be the first contact with families, we can really make a difference.”

Blesener said it will take a willingness to look outside of Fund 04 and to be active at the state Capitol to secure more money.

“We have a great platform from which to spring,” he said. “We know what to do and how to do it. We just need dollars to be able to replicate it.”