Kate Wolford: New report highlights PreK-3rd grade alignment initiatives across MN

Below is president Kate Wolford’s foreword from Starting Strong: PreK through 3rd Grade Success Stories from Across Minnesota, a 2014 MinnCAN report that highlights how teachers and school leaders in six communities are building towards third grade literacy by strengthening pre-K and aligning resources and curriculum across the early grades. 

homepageMinnCANreport3At The McKnight Foundation, we have a long tradition of investing in education. Through years of research and on-the-ground experience, we’ve determined that the developmental span from pre-K through third grade offers the best opportunities for us to focus our efforts. We’re not alone: According to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “Improving early learning programs for children birth through third grade is critical work…[and] one of the most cost-effective investments America can make in its future.”

Reading by the end of third grade is a huge milestone in a child’s learning process. And ensuring proficiency means starting support for early literacy skills long before grade three. To significantly increase third-grade literacy for all Minnesota kids, we must begin by aligning PreK-3rd grade literacy standards, instruction, assessments and professional development. Such alignment ensures that students enter each successive grade with the skills they need to succeed—and that educators across the continuum share common goals, language and strategies.

With a central focus on early literacy and PreK-3rd alignment, McKnight partners closely with Minnesota teachers and school leaders to pilot and strengthen evidence-based strategies. Many of our philanthropic colleagues, such as the Blandin Foundation and the Minnesota Initiative Foundations, are doing the same. We’re encouraged by the progress we’re seeing, such as achievement gaps narrowing in Deer River and teachers collaborating more purposefully in Brooklyn Center, both documented in this report.

Once again, we’re not alone: more and more, educators are placing a renewed emphasis on the early grades, including how best to implement alignment efforts at school and district levels. Our state policymakers are also moving in the right direction on early education, with recent investments in early learning scholarships for low-income kids, all-day kindergarten and an expansion of the Parent Aware quality rating system.

Our work is far from over. Too often, the hard-won gains students make in Minnesota’s high-quality early learning settings aren’t sufficiently strengthened or sustained throughout their early elementary years. Even earlier, 40 percent of Minnesota children still begin kindergarten not fully prepared; a recent national report ranked our state at the bottom of the barrel for pre-K access. And in K-12, Minnesota’s achievement gaps persistently rank among the worst in the nation.

Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul (Photo: Evan Taylor Studios)

Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul (Photo: Evan Taylor Studios)

It doesn’t have to be this way—some schools across Minnesota prove that every day. And to systemically tackle our state’s persistent achievement gaps, it’s time to leverage those pockets of PreK-3rd success. That’s why we’ve decided to take this closer look at Minnesota’s leading preK-3rd grade alignment initiatives—both those McKnight directly supports and those we don’t—to learn which strategies and systems are working, and how our policymakers and educators can take successes to scale.

To create this report, we looked to our colleagues at MinnCAN, who work with local leaders and educators statewide to improve our schools, and have a track record for bringing people together around common advocacy goals. MinnCAN has a practice of traveling the state to learn from high-quality district and charter schools, and sharing their stories with teachers, parents, community leaders and legislators—making them the right partner to help us unearth PreK- 3rd alignment best practices and policy opportunities.

This report only scratches the surface of important PreK-3rd efforts under way in Minnesota. There are many more strong initiatives we weren’t able to document here, such as the expansion of Child-Parent Centers in St. Paul and the Promise Neighborhoods. Nonetheless, we’re pleased to share stories of some of the communities collaborating to coordinate and connect young children’s earliest learning experiences.

We hope this report’s findings and recommendations will be a call to action for Minnesotans to help our youngest learners get the best possible start in school and life.

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