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State council members impressed with Willmar, Minn., early childhood facilities

Barb Johnson teaches English Tuesday at Jefferson Learning Center as her class was visited by members of the Governor's Early Learning Council. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The idea of collaborating with a local baseball team came as a surprise to members of the Governor's Early Learning Council Tuesday.

Same thing with parenting classes in a jail or locally produced children's TV shows.

The council was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to ensure that all children are school-ready by 2020. Sara Carlson of Willmar is a member of the council.

The council met Tuesday afternoon at the MinnWest Technology Campus, and members toured Jefferson Learning Center in Willmar before the meeting.

During its afternoon meeting, the council members discussed plans for a $45 million, four-year federal Race to the Top grant designated for early childhood programs.

Karen Cadigan, the director of the Minnesota Office of Early Learning, described plans so far for the Race to the Top grant.

Some of the grant's goals are to develop a method of judging the quality of preschool programs and providing scholarships for students to attend high quality programs. The grant will also help develop an effective way of measuring progress in preschool.

While there will be statewide benefit, the grant will focus on four communities: Itasca County, Minneapolis' Northside Achievement Zone, St. Paul's Promise Neighborhood, and the White Earth Reservation.

Over the next few months, the office will be developing the work plan for the grant and setting up communications systems, Cadigan said. Scholarships could be available this fall.

At Jefferson, a former elementary school building, council members saw a variety of early childhood education and adult basic education programs of the Willmar School District.

And they learned about how the school programs work with Head Start and a variety of other programs.

Some of them were unexpected to the visitors who came from different parts of the state. The Willmar Stingers have a Books and Baseball night, where children are invited onto the playing field to listen to players read. Willmar firefighters have an annual event centered on reading. Willmar Regional Access Channel, operated by the city, has won awards for its production of children's programming. The Incredible Years parenting class is taught at the Kandiyohi County Jail.

The programs also have partnerships with the Willmar Police Department and Public Library, Heartland Community Action Agency and Kandiyohi County Public Health.

Preschool classrooms often have a mix of regular education and special education students, and the building serves an average of 125 preschool children a day. The visitors watched a class of 3-year-olds go through the alphabet with the help of a video on their classroom's Smart Board.

"It's such a great awareness that there are wonderful things happening out here in Greater Minnesota," said Nancy Holt, the early childhood special education coordinator at Jefferson.

Community Education and Recreation Director Steve Brisendine told the council how the city and school district merged their community education and recreation departments about 10 years ago. "It's been quite seamless," he said.

The tour went through ABE classrooms where students were studying English, preparing for their GED tests or learning about citizenship. Last year, citizenship classes produced 26 new citizens, said ABE director Jim Nicholson.

Before the council meeting, members shared their impressions of the tour.

Several said they liked the idea of the unusual partnerships Willmar has built, and all mentioned the benefits of collaboration.

"I was struck by the fact that everyone seemed to know each other and to like each other," said Scott McConnell, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Carlson, who works for the Southwest Initiative Foundation, said she appreciated seeing the Willmar programs through the eyes of the visitors. "What today taught me is I'm pretty fortunate," she said. "We've got it goin' on in Willmar."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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