Businesses, government finding ways to have education start at day care

>ST. PAUL (AP) – Mary Albert wasn’t one of those day care providers who just plopped the kids in front of the television set. Instead, she would ask kindergarten teachers what she should do to prepare kids for school.

In 2005, St. Paul schools started Project Early Kindergarten – a program that trained child-care providers for just that purpose. Providers learned to set up lesson plans for 3- and 4-year-olds. Albert learned to stay on one idea – such as the color red – until kids get it. Kids wear red, talk about the “R” sound, use visual aids and the color to learn about red things.

“Kids are like a little sponge, and if you say a lot of words or read to them, they’ll grasp that,” Albert said.

The Children’s Defense Fund says 670,000 Minnesota children under 12 spend some time each week in child care. Officials estimate 40 percent of preschool children in the state attend child-care centers.

These days, several public and private efforts are working to make day care a place where kids can get ready for kindergarten.

“Right now, we’ve got about 50 percent of our kids not ready for kindergarten,” said state Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud. “For many families, child care is today’s preschool. And with very high percentages of parents working, we can make a difference here.”

Several pilot programs are training child-care providers and helping parents find good programs. A St. Paul project is showing progress, with children starting school ahead of peers in the same demographic.

Clark authored a $6 million bill during the last legislative session that gives low-income parents $4,000 in annual assistance to help pay for high-quality care in St. Paul, north Minneapolis and the Blue Earth County-Nicollet County area. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, formed from contributions by some of Minnesota’s top employers, has launched or helped fund quality care projects in those same places, and in Wayzata, said Barbara Yates, the foundation’s director of programs and operations.

“With so many children in child care, let’s make sure that care supports their learning,” Yates said. “Let’s get them ready. And let’s make sure the providers can get them ready.”

Newly trained providers could be identified as “quality” programs by the Early Learning Foundation – and receive some scholarship money, Yates said. The foundation is raising $30 million over five years to fund its pilot projects. But Duane Benson, executive director, said top area chief executives have committed $16 million in the first year alone.