In an early-childhood family education class on a recent Friday morning, a group of toddlers appeared to run the show.
One young boy sitting at a table near the door stared down a lumpy glob of deep-blue play-dough. His mom crouched in a pint-sized plastic chair beside him, watching.
Behind him, another student dragged his mom to a shelf against the wall, where he peered into a bucket of toys. Across the room, a mother-daughter pair perused a wall of books.
During circle time, children and mothers said “buh-bye” to their toys and books, listened to their mothers sing “Hello everybody, hello,” as teachers made their way around the circle and greeted each student.
To an untrained eye, it may have looked like play time, said Katy Smith, parent educator with Winona Community Education's ECFE, but it's much more.
Early-childhood education is an opportunity for children to socialize with peers, learn routines, hear new words and learn to share -- all important in getting ready for kindergarten, Smith said. Plus, the classes create a supportive environment for parents, where they can share worries and get advice in navigating the formative years of their childrens’ lives.
These early stages of learning have moved into the spotlight in recent years as the importance of early-childhood education has been affirmed by leaders locally, at the state level and nationwide. That talk has led to a handful of new initiatives that have opened access to quality preschool programs to more children across the country.
The new spotlight has revealed long-standing programs in Winona already designed to support early-childhood needs, run by folks who have worked on such initiatives in some cases for decades. It's also created new opportunities to improve the programs and services, as well as create new ones.
As Margaret Schild, who directs Winona Community Education and is a leader of Winona’s Birth to Grade Three Committee, said of the time for early childhood:
Ahead of the curve
In a lot of ways, the state of Minnesota and Winona have been ahead of the curve when it comes to early childhood.
The local movement ramped up in 2005 with the Winona Early Childhood Initiative, a group that brought together community members from different sectors to address early-childhood issues.
The group was awarded a $15,000 grant in 2006 from the Southern Initiative Foundation used the money to study the assets that Winona had to support the development of programs and services for families and young children.
Some of the work led to organizing community events to spread awareness of early-childhood issues. In 2012, the group brought noted Minnesota economist and early-childhood advocate Al Rolnick to Winona to speak to corporate leaders, legislators and other community members.
The Initiative's early work was supported by the development of a new Birth to Grade Three Committee, which in recent years has created new opportunities for community collaboration in identifying early-childhood needs and brainstorming solutions.
Awareness and growth of early-childhood programming has risen in recent years.
Katy Smith was named the 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. The first early-childhood parent educator to be honored with the award, she became a leading early childhood consultant and a strong advocate for early-childhood support at the state level.
Winona Area Public Schools and the Winona Area United Way got on board in new ways by declaring success in early childhood as a key initiative, with the United Way offering a specific round of grants to organizations focused on early-childhood efforts.
June Reineke, director of the Winona State University Children’s Center and member of the Birth to Grade Three Committee, has been telling her students: “There has never been a more exciting time to be in early childhood.”
Here are a few reasons why:
A new early learning ratings system, called Parent Aware, provides resources to help parents make informed choices about early childhood opportunities for their children.
Led by the Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Office of Early Learning, the program’s one- to four-star system rates the quality of programs based on how well they handle physical health and well-being, teaching and relationships, assessment of child progress, and teacher training and evaluation.
Parent Aware ratings are already available statewide to accredited child care, Head Start and school-based pre-kindergarten programs.
Other licensed family child care programs and child care centers in Winona County will be available later this year. By 2015, they’ll be available statewide.
New this year in Minnesota are state-funded Early Learning Scholarships, which provide income-eligible families up to $5,000 to go toward tuition at high-quality early care and education programs.
Families can access the scholarships in two ways: through a regional scholarship administrator, or through an early learning setting of their choice.
The scholarships can only be applied to providers that participate in Parent Aware.
Connecting early childhood and K-12
Reineke and Schild are working together to get Winona’s Birth to Grade Three Committee involved in the state Department of Education’s PreK-3rd Grade Leadership Institute.
Slated to begin early this year, the training program would bring together teams of leaders from early-childhood and early elementary education to discuss ways of better aligning early childhood with the K-12 system.
This, Schild said, would be a great next step for Winona’s Birth to Grade 3 Committee in looking at how the group can effectively move forward.
New preschool options
In fall 2014, WSU will launch a new preschool program, housed at Washington-Kosciusko Elementary School.
Modeled after a similar program at Madison Elementary, the preschool is scheduled to start in September and serve 35-40 children ages 22 months to 5 years. It will give priority to area at-risk students who might not otherwise have access to early-childhood programming.
Another new preschool opportunity will launch this summer.
In partnership with Head Start, Community Education will pilot Getting Ready Together, available to income-eligible 4- and 5-year-olds who are about to enter Kindergarten with little to no preschool experience.
Aimed to increase school readiness, the intensive program will focus on early reading and math skills.
A new Early Childhood Professional Development Lab based in WSU’s Wabasha Hall opened for the first time last fall. Open at designated times for six hours each week, the center is a space where early-childhood providers can come to learn from one another, attend training and access and construct curriculum materials -- provided free of charge by the United Way.
The Family and Children’s Center and Community Education will continue to host gatherings for childcare providers in 2014. Scheduled on Saturday mornings throughout the school year, the events are educational and networking opportunities for both home childcare and center-based providers.
The events are followed by training opportunities through Child Care Resource and Referral, which can help fill requirements for Parent Aware.
New last year, the events have so far been very well-received -- as many as 35 to 45 providers have come from as far as St. Charles to participate.