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 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

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 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

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

Early Education Spotlight: Little World of Angels

By: Marie Huey

Early Education Spotlight is an ongoing series that showcases great work happening in 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.

“If we don’t talk to them, they aren’t going to learn.”

Elisa reads to children in her program.

This statement from Maria “Elisa” Vega could easily be the motto of her bilingual program. Her licensed family child care, Little World of Angels, is full of children learning through conversation and play. Kids in her program come from a mix of English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families. When they come to Elisa, they sing, read stories, and interact with each other in both English and Spanish.

Continue reading Early Education Spotlight: Little World of Angels

Early Education Spotlight: Daryeel Group Home Daycare

By: Marie Huey

Early Education Spotlight is an ongoing series that showcases great work happening in 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.

Children practice skills they will need for Kindergarten.

You could say that Mariyan Jama is a Parent Aware all-star. She participated in the pilot of the program in 2010. She left the family child care business for a while, but when she came back in 2015 she jumped in to participate again. Her South Minneapolis program, Daryeel Group Home Daycare, has the highest possible rating of Four Stars.

Continue reading Early Education Spotlight: Daryeel Group Home Daycare

Early Education Spotlight: Bloom Early Learning and Child Care

By: Marie Huey

Early Education Spotlight is an ongoing series that showcases great work happening in 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.

zucc-pizza
Children make pizza with zucchini they grew in the Bloom garden.

Established in 2000, Bloom Early Learning & Child Care (formerly Kids’ Care Connection) is an accredited, award-winning, non-profit early learning center with a special mission to make the highest quality care, programs and curriculum accessible to the entire community. The center, located in Plymouth, Minnesota, is NAEYC accredited and 4-star Parent Aware rated. For a unique perspective on their program, here are some of the numbers that stand out at Bloom.
Continue reading Early Education Spotlight: Bloom Early Learning and Child Care