University, Minneapolis Public Schools partner on childhood education

University research will help the schools increase graduation rates.

by Anne Millerbernd

University of Minnesota researchers are teaming up with Minneapolis Public Schools to improve early childhood education in the city’s schools.

The University will contribute its research in the partnership to help MPS create higher-quality facilities to better prepare children for kindergarten, with the goal of improving graduation rates.

Concern over Minneapolis’ achievement gap — lower graduation rates among underrepresented students — helped spur the partnership, MPS Chief Financial Officer Robert Doty said.

“The idea of focusing attention on getting kids ready for kindergarten is not a new focus but a renewed focus,” he said.

Half of Minneapolis public school students graduated from high school in 2012, compared to nearly 78 percent statewide, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The new early childhood education centers will take at least two years to plan and build, after raising money and working with community members, Doty said.

The first center is planned for North Minneapolis, with plans to create another within several years.

Educational psychology associate professor Michael Rodriguez, who has researched early childhood education at the University since 1999, said the partnership serves as a chance for young children and their families to gain access to an education they may not have had before.

“We are essentially taking advantage of an opportunity to provide access … to high-quality educational facilities,” he said.

The education centers’ designs have yet to be determined, but their general structure will be based on University research, said Maureen Seiwert, MPS executive director of early childhood education.

The centers will focus on increasing parental involvement and creating the best environment in which to deliver instruction, she said.

Educational psychology professor Scott McConnell, who is involved with the partnership, said the state has been “aggressively” moving to expand and improve its early childhood services over the last few years. A bill passed last legislative session granted $40 million in early childhood learning scholarships to the Minnesota Department of Education.

While there’s sufficient funding for children to attend early childhood education centers now, he said, there aren’t enough of them available.

“First we had enough high-quality spaces but not enough kids to attend them,” McConnell said. “Now we have enough money for kids to attend them but not quite enough spaces.”

MPS leaders hope to fund the partnership by raising money, Seiwert said, in addition to using funds promised by the federal government.

Many public schools in Minneapolis are already rated four-star, the highest rating a program can have, according to rankings by the Parent Aware for School Readiness committee.

Though Seiwert said MPS is already doing well as a school system, she said she still hopes the partnership will improve high school graduation rates in Minneapolis.

“If we focus on the disparities in student achievement and increase the early childhood opportunity for children,” she said, “research really supports the fact that those kids [will] have better lifelong outcomes.”