Race to the Top, Promise Neighborhoods and federal money for early childhood education in Minnesota


And now, for some good news about education in Minnesota. December has been a good month for the state, with word that three separate streams of federal dollars are flowing into the state to improve our education system. A $28 million Promise Neighborhood implementation grant goes to the Northside Achievement Zone, a $15 million “Investing in Innovation or i3 grant goes to the University of Minnesota to fund research in programs affecting five cities nationwide including St. Paul Public Schools, and a $45 million Race to the Top (RTTT) grant will affect the entire state’s early education system with particular focus on four key areas in Minneapolis, St. Paul, the White Earth Reservation and Itasca County.

Speaking of the three grants, Sondra Samuels, Executive Director of the Northside Achievement Zone, said: “This is a real opportunity for these three streams of support to be woven together.” All three entities will be getting together to make sure that efforts are coordinated, Samuels said. “The excitement is palpable. Finally we have some resources in this state that really has one of the most egregious achievement gaps in the country. Let’s get to work.”

In the next couple of weeks, NAZ will be working with their partners and the state to scale up the organization’s work. Right now, NAZ works with 150 families. Samuels says in the next five years they hope to increase that to 1200 families and put more than 3,000 children on the path to college.

Race To The Top supports early education

The RTTT grant has several components to it, and according to Laurie Davis, who worked as an independent contractor for the State of Minnesota on writing the grant. Davis says that Minnesota was awarded the grant in part because of the “years and years” of work improving early education that led to a place where Minnesota was eligible.

The RTTT grant is going to help bridge the gap for low-income children to get access to early education, Samuels said. About $20 million of the $45 million will go to the four target areas, including North Minneapolis where NAZ will be administering programs such as teacher training and scholarships to high quality centers.

Interestingly, when the feds announced the RTTT competition, the state was shut town, so no state workers were able to meet and plan about it. The Greater Twin Cities United Way stepped in at that point and helped with a lot of communication, according to Davis. They put up a website when it was first announced, and other folks that didn’t work for the state were able to work on what the grant application would entail.

It was at that point that the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, a nonprofit that is scheduled to sunset at the end of this year, stepped in to lend its support. (Davis also works as an independent contractor for MELF, but her RTTT grantwriting was independent of MELF).

Some practices that MELF helped pilot will be utilized in the RTTT grant, said Joe Loveland from MELF, including the Parent Aware Ratings, which are kind of like consumer reports that help parents find the child care providers in their area that are using best practices.

In St. Paul, MELF also piloted a scholarship program that helped some low income kids access high quality providers, a program supported by another component of the RTTT grant.

The School Readiness Funders Coalition contracted Davis as well as Ericca Maas from MELF to work on the application, in communication with the Minnesota Department of Education, the Department of Human Services, the private sector, and the four target communities, she said.

The four target communities include Itasca County, the White Earth Reservation, and the two Promise Neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

Promise Neighborhood dollars: Federal in Minneapolis, private in St. Paul

At the time the grant was being written, the Northside Achievement Zone had not yet received any Promise Neighborhood funding, but Director Sondra Samuels said they still were thinking of themselves as a Promise Neighborhood even without that funding.

For the second round of promise neighborhood grants, NAZ did receive implementation funding though St. Paul’s Promise Neighborhood didn’t. Lisa Gruenewald, the Pre-Kindergarten Program Manager for St. Paul Public Schools, says St. Paul plans to continue with the Promise Neighborhood programming despite not having Promise Neighborhood funding through RTTT.

St. Paul Education Director Jane Eastwood said that because the Promise Neighborhood planning funding (received in the previous round of grants) required matching funds, St. Paul was able to get local support from funders such as McKnight, Otto Bremer, United Way, Health Partners, and others that are still pending. That means the St. Paul program will continue with programming as planned and apply for another federal Promise Neighborhoods Grant next year. “We’re optimistic,” she said.

Nan Upin, from the Wilder Foundation, one of the partners in the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, said they are committed to advance Family Resource Centers in Jackson and Maxfield elementary schools where students can receive medical and dental care. The program will also have a shared data system that will link their organization to other partners, and expand learning time during the school day and through a new summer learning program, as well as an early childhood education network to help parents enroll their children in high-quality early education.

With RTTT funding, St. Paul’s Promise Neighborhoods will receive about $13 million in Early Childhood Education scholarships, with a potential to access $4 million that is currently set aside at the state level for early childhood, though the state level funding is more tentative, according to Upin.

White Earth 

Barb Favre, the program director for the White Earth Childcare and Early Childhood Program, says their participation in the RTTT funding “is kind of a new adventure for us.”

About a year ago, Favre and others from White Earth met with Art Rolnick, from the U of M’s Humphrey Institute, where Rolnick talked to them about his vision and dream of increasing early childhood infrastructure throughout the state of Minnesota. “Art is one of our heroes,” Favre says. “Because he’s saying the thing that we’ve been saying for years that investing in the early years is a big payoff for kids.”

What the RTTT funding means for White Earth is that they will strengthen their support for early childhood education infrastructure. Currently, a few agencies do Headstart, and county and tribe-run child care, but “nobody is really working together per se,” she says.

She’s excited about empowering parents with early childhood development so they become “their child’s number one teacher and number one advocate — so they can become savvy early childhood consumers.”

That means providing parent mentors, and providing the Parent Aware quality rating system to allow “healthy competition”.

As for how much money is going to what programs, Favre says it’s still being worked out. “We’re going to be going into negotiations with the state to identify what pieces we’ll be distributing,” she said.

Though she’s not exactly sure how it will all pan out, Favre says that one of the reasons White Earth was chosen was due to the things they already had in place- parent mentors, distributing subsidies, licensing, training, and literacy work. 

Statewide programs

The St. Paul’s Promise neighborhood and NAZ are part of the four target communities that will receive intensive services, but other parts of the grant will help build statewide infrastructure for supporting early childhood education, Davis says.

Central to the RTTT grant is the Parent Aware System, which was developed by MELF but which the state is taking over. The voluntary system allows early learning programs to be evaluated, which can result in quality improvement, including staff training and materials if they don’t make a top rating.

Beginning with the four target areas, scholarships will be distributed to low income families. Also, another piece of the grant provides dollar-for-dollar matching to school districts that choose to use Title 1 money to support early learning, Davis says.

RTTT also will provide education and training for early childhood education, first to the four target communities but eventually across the state.

Before receiving this grant, Minnesota had set up an Office of Early Learning. According to Davis, the School Readiness Funders encouraged the state to have a Director of Early Learning, and Dr. Karen Cadigan was hired for this position. Cadigan is responsible for communication about early learning across agencies and she and other counterparts play an advisory role to the Children’s Cabinet. Not all of the funding comes out of grant money, Davis said.

Another statewide impact is that a significant part of the grant will be used to build a data system. “There is information about what would be relevant to how are kids are doing. The state will be looking at that on an aggregate level,” Davis said. The data system will allow different state agencies “talk to each other” Davis said, in order to develop a much clearer sense of child outcome.

The good part about developing this data technology, Davis says, is that the upfront costs are high, once you’ve got it set up it will help the state move forward.

Another part of the grant is looking at kindergarten entry assessment. Currently, only about 50 percent of kids in Minnesota are ready to start school in kindergarten. The grant will help develop the entry assessments to provide more useful information, according to Davis. 

One of the partners in the RTTT grant is the Minnesota Reading Corps, which will not use any money from the grant but has agreed to roll out the Reading Corps in the four target communities.