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.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Reasons to be Optimistic About Early Learning in Minnesota

By Todd Otis

  1. The benefits of giving children access to high-quality early learning have been proven beyond a doubt. Nobody has been able to dispute that targeted investment in quality early learning provides the single best public return on investment claims made by respected economists.
  2. Minnesota has a rich history of commitment to quality education for all its citizens. Minnesotans from every region, of every religion, and of every political perspective place a supreme value on education. It is part of our DNA and is the foundation of our quality of life.
  3. Early learning as a public issue has gained tremendous momentum in the past two decades. Both “grass tops” and “grass roots” citizens have embraced the issue. State funding for early learning has increased more than $400 million in the past seven years.
  4. While there are differences of opinion about how best to invest in early learning, this issue has not been contaminated by partisanship the way other public issues have been. Policy-makers of good will have shown a capacity to come together and keep supporting more investment.
  5. The voices of parents and early learning professionals are growing louder and more effective. The issue is catching fire and more and more adults are becoming the voices for children. From Worthington to Duluth and from Moorhead to Winona the tide of support is rising.
  6. Coalition work remains robust and unity within the movement continues to be valued. Start Early Funders Coalition joined hands with the Minnesota’s Future coalition to create MinneMinds. Leaders from diverse communities created Voices and Choices. Other coalitions continue to strengthen the movement. We are making progress on many fronts, together.
  7. YOU will make a difference. If you have read this far you obviously care about providing access to quality early learning for all of our children. YOU matter and need to be heard. As Margaret Meade, the great anthropologist, said years ago:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE CITIZENS. SPEAK OUT FOR OUR YOUNGEST CITIZENS!!

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Todd Otis is Vice President of External Relations at Think Small.  Founder and President of Ready 4 K, Otis has over 30 years experience in public affairs and communications.  A former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives (1979-1990), he also chaired the state D.F.L party.  From 1994 to 2001, he was a public affairs consultant in early childhood and the environment.  Otis has an A.B. from Harvard University and an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.