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Bremer grant aids effort to improve pre-school collaboration

Patti Dols, left, and Jodi Wambeke, right, play in the sand with Bella Johnson, second from left, Ruby Hultgren, Samantha Millan and Kaelyn Solberg at the Kids Together 3s class at Jefferson Learning Center. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR — A group of child advocates in the Willmar area is working to develop a cohesive education plan for pre-school children in the area.

The Children’s Cabinet hopes to replace a patchwork of curriculum among child care providers with a common program to prepare children for kindergarten.

The effort got a big boost last week with a $47,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation.

Willmar Bremer Bank president MaryAnn Doyle said the collaboration between many groups in the community was a factor in the foundation’s decision.

Other support has come from the United Way of West Central Minnesota and its Empower group, Jennie-O Turkey Store, the Willmar Community Foundation, the Southwest Initiative Foundation and Willmar Community Education and Recreation.

The Children’s Cabinet got its start about a year ago, when a United Way donor wanted to focus his giving to make a bigger difference, said Renee Nolting, United Way director.

After meeting with different groups, they arrived at the idea of the Children’s Cabinet and a plan to enhance and expand pre-school offerings in the community.

Early work centered on getting organized and choosing a curriculum that could be widely used in the community and that would line up with the Willmar Public Schools kindergarten curriculum.

Some of the first organizations involved were Willmar Community Education and Recreation, Empower and Head Start. Child care centers and home day cares were invited, too.

Jodi Wambeke, who coordinates early childhood programs for WCER, said the group has been looking for curriculum that is of proven quality and has useful ways to assess the progress young learners are making.

The cabinet got a boost, too, when Willmar was chosen to pilot the Parent Aware pre-school program rating, which ranks programs with one through four stars.

Programs with three or four stars will be eligible for state pre-school scholarships that were approved by the Legislature this year. The scholarships could help programs like Head Start, which have been affected by federal sequester budget cuts.

In Willmar, the WCER pre-school programs and Head Start are four-star programs. Several centers are going through the ratings process. Coaching and mentoring are available for providers interested in the ratings, Wambeke said.

The next step in the Children’s Cabinet effort will be outreach efforts to get more people and child care providers involved.

Patti Dols, a retired elementary principal from Willmar, became involved in the effort through her role as an Empower officer.

“The 3- and 4-year-olds of Willmar have a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I just think the kids are really going to benefit; our community is going to benefit.”

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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