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Kindergarten readiness targeted

Gina Lieser, left, and Stacey Roberts show off the many purses that have been donated for the third annual "Power of the Purse" fundraiser on Saturday for Empower, a women's philanthropy initiative that is part of the United Way of West Central Minnesota. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- A United Way women's philanthropy initiative hopes to raise upwards of $14,000 this weekend to help increase kindergarten readiness among Kandiyohi County children.

Empower is hosting its third annual "Power of the Purse" auction of designer handbags on Saturday. Guests also will have a chance to tour four homes on Green Lake and attend a social hour at Melvin's on the Lake in Spicer.

The money that's raised will be invested in local projects that help prepare the littlest learners to succeed in school.

"One hundred percent of what's given goes straight to Empower to use in our community for early learning," said Gina Lieser, resource development director for the United Way of West Central Minnesota.

The event is Empower's main fundraiser for the year, she said. "We want to increase awareness and membership as well."

The funds target what is seen as a critical community need: children's readiness to learn when they enter kindergarten. As many as half of kindergarten-age children in Kandiyohi County are not adequately prepared when they enter school, and there are signs this gap may be widening.

Many youngsters who fall behind will stay behind, said Stacey Roberts, the United Way's executive director.

Empower's goal is to increase the level of kindergarten readiness to 80 percent of children by 2012. To get there, the group has launched projects such as the Growmobile, a mobile preschool that was piloted last summer in two Willmar neighborhoods and will become a permanent countywide program this year. Empower also supplied 700 learning kits this past year to children who attended preschool screening, and gave out more than $13,000 in grants for projects such as a Latino child care outreach program.

"We really have tried to (take) a multi-faceted approach to this issue," Roberts said. "Bringing the experts to the table has been the key."

Surveys with focus groups, for instance, indicated there was a need to do more outreach, especially with at-risk children. This finding led to the establishment of the Growmobile, Roberts said. "It's time poverty. It's financial poverty. We have a lack of resources to reach kids. This is one of the ways they can be reached."

Early results suggest it's helping. Assessments of the pre-kindergarteners who attended the Growmobile last summer found they made strides between June and August. Feedback from school principals also indicated that the older children who attended did not regress in learning over the summer.

"People are behind it. They think it's a great concept," Roberts said.

Results from countywide kindergarten readiness testing are being compiled and will be released some time this spring. The data not only will help measure progress but also will identify areas of greatest need, Roberts said.

With school districts increasingly strapped for cash and class sizes growing, these kinds of public-private partnerships are going to be more important than ever, she said.

"That's going to relieve a lot of the stress that happens that first year when kids come to school not ready to learn," she said. "The more we can do to start kids on the same level, the better that's going to be... It's a glimmer of hope, I think, with school funding being cut, to see people gathering round and trying to do the best we can to get kids ready for school."