Erin Gavin: National panelists highlight critical role of early education

A child who does not read well by the end of third grade is four times more likely not to graduate from high school. Tragically, many states predict future prison populations based on their youngest citizens’ early reading proficiency. And for too long, Minnesota’s schools have been plagued by staggering disparities between success rates for white students and students of color — the worst in the nation by many measures.

Students at Academia Cesar Chavez in St. Paul.

Students at Academia Cesar Chavez, one of McKnight’s grantees.

Understanding that improving early literacy is an important step in eliminating such unacceptable disparities, McKnight’s board of directors established a goal to increase 3rd-grade reading proficiency in the Twin Cities. In partnership with the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute and several Twin Cities district and charter schools, we’ve come to embrace both the crucial work to improve K-3 schooling and the reality that achievement gaps develop long before a child enters kindergarten. Successful early intervention requires uniting those “separate galaxies” of early childhood and K-12 education, so McKnight fosters coherent PreK-3rd pathways for students.

Last week, McKnight gathered together a crowd at the James J. Hill Library in downtown St. Paul to discuss PreK-3rd practices, policies, and possibilities (full panel video below). We sought to catalyze a conversation around how to ensure that students and parents experience consistent, high-quality educational experiences from age 3 to grade 3. Dr. Tim Knowles, the John Dewey Director at UEI, moderated a panel of national experts who included:

  • Dr. Kristie Kauerz, a member of McKnight’s Education and Learning National Advisory Board and research assistant professor of P-3 Policy and Leadership at the University of Washington. Kauerz is the co-author of the recently released Framework for Planning Implementing and Evaluating PreK-3rd Approaches.
  • Melvin Carter, director of the Office of Early Learning at the Minnesota Department of Education. A father of two, Carter is a former St. Paul city councilor and was an early champion of the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, a community-based effort that seeks to provide a seamless system of supports for early learners and their families.
  • Stanley Sanger, superintendent of Union City Public Schools, Union City, New Jersey. Sanger, a 40 year veteran of Union City Public Schools, oversaw the district’s development of a universal PreK program that serves students in partnership with over 35 community-based childcare providers. This early learning investment has propelled Union City to the top of the academic heap — especially impressive because of the district’s high rates of low-income students and dual language learners.

The James J. Hill Library in downtown St. Paul.

When Knowles invited the panelists to describe their personal connections to PreK-3rd grade work, Carter best highlighted the impact of academic disparities on our communities: “This is fantastic state …if only Minnesota could make it into my neighborhood better. If only Minnesota could make it into Frogtown or North Minneapolis … we’d all be a whole lot better off.” His comments, and those of our other panelists, consistently reiterated how educational choices and approaches mirror other stark extremes — freedom vs. imprisonment, economic vitality vs. economic stagnation, even healthy longevity vs. early death. Early success is everything in determining future successes. And our students who need it the most deserve clear “lines of sight” that start with their earliest years. PreK-3rd pathways provide these sight lines.

McKnight convenes conversations like this because we recognize our own need for constant learning. We believe our impact is greatest when we develop a deep understanding of the context we’re working in, and when we can share that understanding with others. I encourage you to take a few minutes to view our 3-minute interview with moderator Tim Knowles. (In coming days, we’ll post brief interviews with other panelists here and on Facebook.) And we’ve also posted the full panel discussion in its entirety for educators, community leaders, other foundations, parents, or concerned citizens that want to learn more about the group’s perspectives.

Learning from each other and working together, we can build a cradle-to-career pathway that brings the best Minnesota has to offer to every child in the state.






GavinHeadshotErin Gavin
Education & Learning Program & Policy Officer