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'Everything is learning': Minnesota districts with free pre-K say its boon for kids, parents

Vincent Bender-Bieber, 4, reads a book during pre-kindergarten free time at Ada-Borup Elementary School on Monday, April 17, in Ada, Minn. Helmut Schmidt/Forum News Service 1 / 3
Calli Azure-Erbentraut concentrates on using scissors to cut up paper during pre-kindergarten free time at Ada-Borup Elementary School on Monday, April 17, in Ada, Minn. Helmut Schmidt/Forum News Service 2 / 3
Terry Stene, a grandparent volunteer, reads to pre-kindergarteners Sofia Stene (center) and Cambria Carlsrud at Ada-Borup Elementary School on Monday, April 17, in Ada, Minn. Helmut Schmidt/ Forum News Service 3 / 3

ADA, Minn. — Fresh off a post-lunch nap, the 4- and 5-year-olds in Dawn Tinjum's pre-kindergarten class at Ada-Borup Elementary School were busy playing — and learning, too, even if they didn't realize it.

Sprawled on a mat, Vincent Bender-Bieber was glued to a My Little Pony book. Close by, Calli Azure-Erbentraut was sharpening her dexterity by using a scissors to cut shapes in colored paper. Four of their classmates colored sheets with Easter eggs, while on a bench by Tinjum's desk, two children listened raptly as a volunteer read to them.

"Everything is learning. The better the foundation you can build for children, the better off they're going to be in the long run," Tinjum said.

That's the reasoning behind Gov. Mark Dayton's $175 million budget proposal to make pre-kindergarten available free of charge to more than 17,000 4-year-olds in Minnesota, as it is in Ada-Borup and many other districts thanks to a limited state grant.

Dayton's plan to expand pre-K statewide faces opposition in the House, where the Republican majority crafted a budget that eliminates dedicated pre-K funding, and instead counters with $48 million for school readiness adjustment credits and $24.6 million for early learning scholarships.

But educators at schools where state funding has already allowed free pre-K say they see great value in the expansion plan.

Tinjum said she can even see differences in learning between children taking two-day per week and three-day per week classes at Ada-Borup Elementary. "It's not just the academics, it's the social and emotional" aspects of being with other children that are boosted, Tinjum said.

'It's equal'

Free pre-kindergarten was made available this school year to 3,300 Minnesota children in 74 school districts, thanks to $25 million in funding championed by Dayton in the last legislative session.

For Ada-Borup, the nearly $200,000 in extra funding fueled a 50 percent increase in enrollment, from 40 children last year, to about 60 this year, Principal Craig Bahr said. The teachers and specialists involved are all licensed, and they get professional training, he said.

"We think it's going great. Our feedback from parents has been positive. The only negative is that they'd like to see a five-day program," Bahr said. "Our students are benefitting. It's something we'd like to see other districts get."

Several other school districts in the region also received pre-K funding for this school year: Park Rapids, Climax, Mahnomen, Norman County East, Pelican Rapids, Warren-Alvarado-Oslo, Waubun and Wheaton all among them.

Jill Dickinson, the Park Rapids community education director, said free pre-K would be a boon for the state's children. "It's equal, that's what I like," she said.

Working families don't always have the funds to pay for both day care and preschool, she said.

"This gives them both. This is giving everybody access to good-quality preschool. I'm totally for it," Dickinson said.

The Park Rapids program grew from 35 children last year to 60 children this year, she said.

Dickinson said children are now screened earlier to determine if they have hearing or eyesight issues, or other disabilities or special education needs.

"If you have the opportunity as a parent to provide your child free preschool, please take advantage of it," Dickinson said.

Moorhead seeking funds

Moorhead School District currently offers Jump Start preschool classes for 3- and 4-year-olds, but tuition is based on a sliding scale. The district would like to be able to offer preschool without a charge — provided the program survives the budget battles of the final weeks of this legislative session. Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash said her district has applied for funding for the coming school year.

Last year, Moorhead schools were still packed, thanks to steadily growing enrollment. So the district didn't apply for funds. With the opening this fall of Dorothy Dodds Elementary School and a fifth- and sixth-grade addition to Horizon Middle School, all of the district's kindergarteners will be back in their neighborhood elementary schools, and Probstfield Elementary will go back to being an early childhood education facility, with plenty of room for preschool.

Still, Kovash says pre-K funding can't come at the expense of K-12 funding when an education bill is finally hammered out.

"That has been our main worry, that it's one or the other. It needs to be both. Funding for general education and funding for pre-kindergarten," Kovash said.

Kovash said if free pre-K is a go, the district would hire more teachers and come up with a transportation plan.

For now, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton schools will pass on seeking pre-kindergarten funding, Superintendent Bryan Thygeson said.

"We don't have the facilities for it, so it isn't our highest priority," he said.

More than 80 percent of district residents rejected a $31.5 million school construction bonding plan in a November 2015 referendum. That plan, meant to address a space crunch due to rising enrollment, included building a new pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade school.

Thygeson agrees with Kovash that K-12 funding should not be cut.

"We're all in agreement that we'd like to see services provided for children. But the highest priority should still be the K-12. Meet those needs first, and then you can look at expanding services," Thygeson said.

Come see it

Charlene Baker has been teaching preschool for more than 30 years, and has worked in Ada-Borup since 2002. She's the Early Childhood Family Education and lead pre-kindergarten teacher for Ada-Borup.

Baker, who spent part of last summer working on the application for the district's pre-kindergarten funding, hopes lawmakers will agree that pre-kindergarten has value and should be available to all families without charge.

"If I could (visit) the House, I would ask them to visit our program. See it. Come and ask us questions on our home turf about what differences this makes" for students, she said.

"And I would ask them to talk to the parents of these kids, where the heart of the matter really is. I would ask them to become more personally involved, and not just pass legislation on money numbers alone," Baker said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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