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

Early Education Spotlight – Here We Grow

By: Marie Huey (Video by Kristie Thorson)

Early Education Spotlight is an ongoing series that showcases great work happening in high-quality child care and preschool settings across Minnesota. From innovative early learning programs to parent perspectives on what works, check out the Early Education Spotlight for unique examples of Minnesota’s early learning successes.

Here We Grow Early Childhood Center near Mankato, MN, features a large garden.

Bugs are a perennial favorite for kids at Here We Grow. There are plenty of grasshoppers to chase in the garden. Water exploration is also a highlight, and several pumps are stationed around the outdoor play area.

The nature-based early childhood center, located in Mankato, contains many opportunities for children to learn and grow outside. Owner and Director Elizabeth Bangert wrote the curriculum and designed the space for this Four Star Parent Aware rated program.

Here We Grow sits on two acres of land.

The Reggio-inspired curriculum means children direct the learning. Rather than set unit topics and lengths, Here We Grow has provocations based on children’s interests. This year a one week provocation about the human body turned into seven weeks. One of the children’s parents, a physician, came in to talk about wound care. The kids explored functions of white and red blood cells, with help from their teachers, of course.

Because children spend most of their time outside, they have plenty of opportunity to interact with other children and talk. Parents are amazed at how quickly their child’s vocabulary expands at Here We Grow. The outdoors is also a perfect setting to develop gross motor skills. Running, jumping, climbing, digging, and splashing are just a few of the activities encouraged by the play area.

Continue reading Early Education Spotlight – Here We Grow

Northeastern Minnesota Addresses Child Care Shortage

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, Public Policy and Advocacy Coordinator

Five child care programs in Northeastern Minnesota are receiving a boost from state funds. The Northland Foundation received a grant from the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to increase availability of child care in the region.

While a child care shortage is a problem statewide, the Northland’s situation is especially shocking. The Northland Foundation serves the communities of Northeastern Minnesota which include Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake, an St. Louis counties. In that region, over 80% of moms work. A 55% growth in child care slots is needed to meet the demands of families with children six and younger, which is the highest in the state. Additionally, the poverty rate for children under 5 is significant, around 25%. While an increase in access is urgent, it is especially important that those openings are high-quality, in order to give vulnerable children a great start. Continue reading Northeastern Minnesota Addresses Child Care Shortage

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

Early Education Spotlight: Stepping Stones Childcare Learning Center, Inc

By: Marie Huey

Early Education Spotlight is an ongoing series that showcases great work happening in high-quality child care and preschool settings across Minnesota. From innovative early learning programs to parent perspectives on what works, check out the Early Education Spotlight for unique examples of Minnesota’s early learning successes.

Serena Bowman (Left) and Christel Cartie, Co-Owners and Directors of Stepping Stones

Parents often ask sisters Serena Bowman and Christel Cartie, “Are you a preschool program?” The sisters confidently respond, “Yes.” Because Stepping Stones Childcare Learning Center, Inc is a high-quality, Four Star Parent Aware rated program where parents can be assured that their children receive the enrichment and educational opportunities they need to be school and life ready.

When Serena and Christel combined their entrepreneurial spirit with their passion for making a difference for children, the result was Stepping Stones. They noticed that many families in the area needed care for their children, and many specifically wanted a place that offered high-quality early education options. With a goal of providing a unique experience and taking high-quality care and education to the next level, they opened a child care center in 2008. That original Aitkin location no longer exists, but they now have three centers: in Brainerd, Baxter, and Pequot Lakes. Continue reading Early Education Spotlight: Stepping Stones Childcare Learning Center, Inc

The Triple Bottom Line of Child Care

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: Cisa Keller, Senior Vice President of Early Childhood Quality Development at Think Small

Quality child care is essential to the state’s economic viability.  Every Minnesotan is touched by child care, whether directly or indirectly.  Child care allows families to go to work, supports children in their development as tomorrow’s workforce, and is a network of small businesses that span all geographical, economic and cultural communities in Minnesota.  Child care is a foundational element that creates the space for our state’s economy to thrive. At Think Small we believe that by prioritizing investments in both access to high quality and capacity building of the sector, we will be able to strengthen child care business and increase availability for Minnesota’s young families.  In doing so we will also achieve a triple bottom line:

  1. supporting the economy by boosting the business of child care,
  2. supporting employment for parents and families, and
  3. supporting young children by preparing them for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Continue reading The Triple Bottom Line of Child Care

Early Learning Scholarships Are Critical for Children in Child Protection

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: Rich Gehrman, Founder and Executive Director of Safe Passage for Children

Early childhood education and quality child care are among a handful of services that significantly reduce the incidence of child abuse and neglect, and also lessen negative effects when it does occur.

That is why Safe Passage for Children and Think Small actively participated in the successful 2017 campaign by the MinneMinds Coalition to pass legislation giving top priority for early learning scholarships to children who are homeless, in child protection, or in foster care, and to open eligibility at birth rather than age three.  As a result of this effort, $20.65 million was added to the state budget for the current biennium, bringing the total early childhood scholarship pool to $140.4 million.

While the increase itself was modest, the policy changes in this statute mean that our most vulnerable children can now get critical child development opportunities on a priority basis, and during the much earlier period when it can best promote healthy brain development.

This accomplishment caps years of effort by key legislative leaders and the MinneMinds Coalition, with a special push this session by a team that included Safe Passage, Close Gaps by 5, Hennepin County, People Serving People, and Hylden Advocacy and Law.

Continue reading Early Learning Scholarships Are Critical for Children in Child Protection

Policies in Play

Join us on the playground as we explore Policies in Play!


Think Small believes that placing a priority on children and their families through access to high quality early childhood education is critical to closing Minnesota’s opportunity gap, thus eliminating the state’s achievement gap. Policy decisions that are in the best interest of children are in the best interest of communities and thus Minnesota’s future economic development.

The 2017 legislative session included several key changes to early care and education, including:

  • Early Learning Scholarships Policy and Funding Changes
  • Child Care Assistance Program Changes
  • Department of Economic Development Child Care Grants
  • Office of the Legislative Auditor Report (February 2018)

Continue reading Policies in Play

Free Early Childhood Text Messaging Program Offered to Minnesota Parents

Child Care Providers Can Meet Parent Aware Requirement by Encouraging Families to Sign Up

Woodbury parent Amy Raleigh with her daughter Fiona.

When Woodbury parent Amy Raleigh heads to the store with her 4-year old daughter Fiona, she has a grocery list in one hand and her mobile phone in the other.  A busy mom who is constantly on the go, Raleigh uses text messages sent by Think Small ParentPowered Texts to turn ordinary situations into early learning experiences.

“These texts are helpful reminders to use everyday activities as learning opportunities with my daughter,” said Raleigh.  “They do a great job of not only giving me ideas, but also explaining how these activities are helping Fiona get ready for kindergarten.”

Think Small ParentPowered Texts is a FREE program that provides families with fun facts and easy tips to help build a child’s school readiness skills.  Parents who sign-up will receive text messages developed by researchers offering suggestions on ways to promote their child’s social-emotional learning, increase motor and language skills, and improve overall health development.  Continue reading Free Early Childhood Text Messaging Program Offered to Minnesota Parents