Think Small Annual Report: Picturing Brighter Futures

“Our mission is to advance quality care and education of children in their crucial early years.”

The theme of our 2017 Report to the Community is ‘Picturing Brighter Futures’ for Minnesota’s kids.

Read the annual report here.

Inside our Report to the Community, you will find highlights from the past fiscal year, along with photos that capture all of the ways we are working hard to help create those brighter futures, by preparing early childhood providers, strengthening Minnesota families, and by catalyzing change with our policy and advocacy efforts.

Our annual report also shares our financial position as of June 30, 2017, and recognizes the generous contributions made by our volunteers and donors to make our work possible.

In the past year, Think Small has provided 1,100 trainings and over 3,200 hours of one-on-one coaching services to 15,500 child care providers in Minnesota.  We have strengthened over 9,800 families by connecting them to quality early care and education through financial support, resources and referrals.  And we have provided essential early learning resources to countless more through our Early Childhood library and through the distribution of more than 200,000 early childhood products around the world via our award-winning Redleaf Press.

Policy Hour – Changes to Child Care in Minnesota

By Marie Huey, Public Policy and Advocacy Coordinator

Staff from DHS presented at Policy Hour.

Staff from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) presented at November Policy Hour about the changes to child care in Minnesota. During the 2017 legislative session, many changes passed to help Minnesota come into compliance with federal updates to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG).

Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) Changes
Nicole Frethem gave an overview of changes to CCAP. Families receiving CCAP will now have 12 months of continuous eligibility, providing more stability than the previous system of redetermining eligibility every 6 months. During those 12 months, copayments will not go up with changes in family income, although they can go down if necessary. Most families will have to report less information during this time about changes in work schedule or child care needs.

Providers will now have to receive payments within 21 days, which is faster than the previous requirement of 30 days. For more information about CCAP changes, refer to this document.

Licensing
Michelle McGregor gave an overview of changes to child care licensing. License-exempt programs that serve children receiving CCAP will now need to go through a certification process. This includes many after school programs and requires them to meet additional health and safety standards, along with some other new requirements.

Continue reading Policy Hour – Changes to Child Care in Minnesota

Think Small Offers Free Information Sessions for Parent Aware Participation

Child care provider Brenda Arzac Ramirez reads to the children attending her four star Parent Aware rated program in Minneapolis.

By Susan Schaffhausen

In 2017, Think Small undertook new efforts to increase the number of child care providers who devote their care to ensuring children’s health, safety, and best practices for early learning through participation in Parent Aware.  Parent Aware is the statewide Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) for Minnesota. Parent Aware participation and quality ratings are focused on getting children ready to succeed in school and bring significant benefits to licensed care providers, both family and center-based.   Parent Aware is the opportunity for providers to go beyond basic care certification and strengthen their commitment to excellence.

Think Small was responding specifically to a steady decline in the number of family child care programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul (15% from 2014 to 2017) and the smallest number of providers entering Parent Aware in the history of the program. This was a concerning trend as the metro area has a significant number of family child care providers of color and new immigrant providers, who often serve populations with limited resources and opportunities.  Parent Aware participation makes a valuable range of free and low-cost resources available to support providers, including coaching and trainings from early childhood professionals, professional development support, funding support for quality improvements, and access to higher child care assistance rates and early learning scholarships.

Watch this video Think Small produced highlighting the benefits of participating in Parent Aware.

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Children Experiencing Homelessness Benefit from Early Learning Scholarship Changes


By Marie Huey, Public Policy and Advocacy Coordinator

Early Learning Scholarships allow children ages 3-5 from low-income families to attend high-quality early learning programs. During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers made a change to allow children 0-5 from certain groups to access the scholarships on a priority basis. One of the priority groups is children experiencing homelessness.

To find out what this change looks like in action, we visited People Serving People in Minneapolis. People Serving People is the region’s largest and most comprehensive family-focused homeless shelter. The average age of children at the shelter is six, so staff have extensive experience working with very young children.

Emma Juon, People Serving People, Minneapolis.

Emma Juon, Educational Services Manager at the emergency shelter, said they are already seeing the impact of the recent change. Some children weren’t able to access scholarships after leaving the shelter because they were too young. Now all children under five are eligible. This helps set them up for success.

“Before there were so many families that were discounted for it because their kids were two and under, three and under, but now they all count,” said Juon.

Once children receive an early learning scholarship, they are able to stay on it until kindergarten as long as they renew it each year. This continuity is extremely beneficial for children who have experienced the disruption and trauma of homelessness.

The flexibility of the scholarship is crucial. When families move out of the shelter, they have different schedules and needs. The scholarship allows them to choose what works best. While it stabilizes the child’s schedule, it is also helpful for the parents to have a reliable and consistent place to leave their child while at work.

Watch a short video clip of Emma Juon discussing what the changes will mean for families at People Serving People.

The recent change is reaching the children and families who need it, and Juon is encouraged by its effectiveness. However, there is more demand. The current funding does not cover the total need.

“More funding for scholarships means that we can help more families get on those scholarships – more families experiencing homelessness can have their child on a scholarship from age 6 weeks until they go to kindergarten,” said Juon.  “We unfortunately don’t have the space in our onsite center to take in all the children, even in our own shelter, so more funding means that we can hook up more families with Pathway I money so they can go out into the community and access high quality early learning.”

Early Sprouts: Growing Great Gardeners


By Kristie Thorson

There is much more ‘being planted’ in this backyard then simple seeds and seedlings.  These Minnesota children, along with their family child care provider, are also developing a perennial love of gardening, and with that, a desire to always eat their veggies!

Taking turns watering the garden is a favorite activity.

It’s all part of Think Small’s Early Sprouts program – a hands-on curriculum which teaches children about healthy eating and guides family child care providers through planting, gathering and serving nutritious foods in their programs.

“Early Sprouts is focused on giving providers experience and knowledge around adding a garden to their program,” said Rochelle Mateffy, an early childhood coach at Think Small.

Thanks to the generous support of the Cargill, Think Small is able to offer the Early Sprouts program to providers in the Twin Cities area at no cost.  Family child care providers attend training classes and then they work with an Early Childhood Coach from Think Small to incorporate a garden into their family child care setting.  This past planting season, twelve child care providers participated in the program.  There were four from St. Paul, four from Minneapolis, one from Brooklyn Center and one from Brooklyn Park.

The children participate in the full garden experience from planting to harvesting.

“For the kids, the focus of this program is to give them the garden to table experience,” said Mateffy. “To teach them where their food comes from and also give them an opportunity to try these vegetables.”

Family child care provider, Wendy Prokosch, harvests green beans with one of the kids.

Family child care provider, Wendy Prokosch, owns and operates Lil’ Pro Family Child Care, a four-star Parent Aware rated program in Brooklyn Park.

“I have a lot of picky eaters and I was hoping Early Sprouts would give them more exposure and because of the ownership in the process that they’d actually experiment a little bit more,” said Prokosch.  “And it worked!  They are trying things that they normally would not even try.”

To see the Early Sprouts program in action, check out this video from Lil’ Pro Family Child Care.

Small Talks – Text Me: Turning Everyday Moments into Early Learning Experiences

Small Talks features leaders who share key insights on early childhood education and discuss innovative solutions to early learning issues in Minnesota.

By Kristie Thorson

Small Talks took place at the Wilder Center in St. Paul on Tuesday, October 10, 2017.

Text Me: Turning Everyday Moments into Early Learning Experiences was the topic of the second Small Talks event which took place October 10, 2017, at the Wilder Center in St. Paul. The panel presentation and discussion focused on leveraging the simplicity of text messaging to engage parents and boost a child’s learning.

Ben York, Ph.D., Founder of ParentPowered Public Benefit Corporation, made the trip from California to talk about the research behind Think Small ParentPowered Texts.  This free program is offered to parents of children ages birth to five.

Ben York, Ph.D., Founder of ParentPowered Public Benefit Corporation.

“We sought to develop an approach to complement existing programs by breaking down the complexity of engaged parenting into small steps that are easy to achieve,” York said.

Think Small ParentPowered Texts provide Minnesota parents with three text messages per week.

“On Mondays, we send facts, which include factual information on why the skill of the week is important,” said York.  “On Wednesdays, we send tip messages with recommendations for activities that build on existing family routines, and on Fridays, we send growth messages which reiterate the skill and provide encouragement and follow-up.”

Click below to watch some video highlights from the Small Talks event.

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Families First: Connecting Southern MN Children with Early Learning Scholarships

The Policies in Play series takes a closer look at the recently passed state legislative policies that affect early care and education. We work with partners to find out what these policies look like in action and how they impact Minnesota children and families.

By Jon Losness and Sara Stebbins

For over 40 years, Families First of Minnesota (formally Child Care Resource and Referral) has been a non-profit organization in our community working as a resource for parents, child care programs, and community members in all areas of early childhood.  Our programs reach families in 20 southern counties across the state, as well as greater Minnesota in the case of Early Learning Scholarships.

We help ensure positive beginnings for all young children and their families by offering the following programs in the Rochester area and beyond:

  • Child Care Aware (20 counties)
  • Crisis Nursery (Olmsted County)
  • Early Head Start (Olmsted, Freeborn, also with Semcac and Three River partnerships in Rice and Winona)
  • Early Learning Scholarships (28 counties)
  • Head Start (Olmsted, Freeborn)
  • School Readiness (Rochester)

Families First’s role in Early Learning Scholarships is that of Area Administrator in which we administer services that meet the grant requirements under an obligation to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). This current fiscal year we are working with an awarded amount of $7.3 million.  This means we award and manage scholarships to qualifying families in 4 Regional Areas making up 28 Minnesota counties, with 2 of these areas being newly added this fiscal period: Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Rice, Steele, Wabasha, Winona, Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca, Watonwan, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Pine, Carver, Dakota and Scott. Currently, we are serving almost 1000 children in these areas.

Continue reading Families First: Connecting Southern MN Children with Early Learning Scholarships

Policy Hour: Early Education Policy and Funding Changes

By Marie Huey, Public Policy and Advocacy Coordinator

Amanda Varley and June Reineke from MDE presented at the October 2017 Policy Hour.

Representatives from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) presented at the first Policy Hour of the season. June Reineke and Amanda Varley shared updates on changes to early education policy and funding from the 2017 legislative session.

Early Learning Scholarships
Early Learning Scholarships are funds used to increase access to high-quality early childhood programs for three to five year olds and zero to two year olds in some circumstances. They aim to support kindergarten readiness for children with the highest needs.

Pathway I Scholarships are awarded to eligible children through an Area Administrator. Parents choose the program where they would like to use the scholarship. Pathway II Scholarships are awarded to children through a Four Star Parent Aware rated early childhood site. Programs apply to receive the Pathway II funds.

Varley noted the impressive expansion of scholarship funding, which started out as $2 million for select areas in 2013 and is now a $70.2 million statewide program. They will serve an estimated 16,000 children in the current fiscal year (July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018).

Continue reading Policy Hour: Early Education Policy and Funding Changes

Small Talks – Talk to Me: How Early Conversations Impact a Child’s Life

Small Talks features leaders who will share key insights on early childhood education and discuss innovative solutions to early learning issues in Minnesota.

By Kristie Thorson

Talk to Me: How Early Conversations Impact a Child’s Life was the topic of the first Think Small Small Talks event which took place August 15, 2017, at the University of Minnesota’s Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center in Minneapolis.  The panel presentation and discussion focused on closing the word gap in Minnesota through simple practices, strategic partnerships, and innovative research.

Scott McConnell, Educational Psychology professor at the University of Minnesota was one of the presenters.  His research focuses primarily on preschool-aged children, and the skills and competencies that will enable them to learn and participate in school and other settings.  His work includes implementation and evaluation of LENA Start, a program which focuses on increasing interactive talk with children because it has been proven to be a key factor in early brain development.

“Families talk more, kids talk more.  Families talk less, kids talk less,” McConnell said.

Click below to watch some video highlights from the first Small Talks event.

Continue reading Small Talks – Talk to Me: How Early Conversations Impact a Child’s Life

West Central Minnesota Child Care Providers Benefit from Forgivable Loans

The Policies in Play series takes a closer look at the recently passed state legislative policies that affect early care and education. We work with partners to find out what these policies look like in action and how they impact Minnesota children and families.

By Marie Huey, Civic Engagement Specialist

Like many communities across the state and especially in Greater Minnesota, the West Central region is experiencing a child care shortage.  West Central Initiative (WCI) serves the counties of Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Traverse, and Wilkin, and is the area designated as Minnesota’s Economic Development Region IV.  Child care providers are leaving the field for a variety of reasons, from low compensation to reaching retirement age, making infant care in many areas especially difficult to find.

Because WCI heard from their region that improving access to child care was crucially important, they decided to “flip the switch” on financial supports to the field.  When the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) announced the Request for Proposal for Greater Minnesota child care grants, WCI was ready to apply.  Greg Wagner, Business and Economic Development Director at WCI, spoke with me to explain the process and impact on child care providers in the area.

Continue reading West Central Minnesota Child Care Providers Benefit from Forgivable Loans