Duluth aims to expand programs for 4-year-olds

At Piedmont Elementary School in Duluth on Tuesday, 4-year-old Aurora Norman successfully arranged several small blue and purple dinosaurs into a line of alternating colors. "Look at my pattern -- teacher, lookit!" she said. Debbie Farnham's pre-...

Kids in Piedmont Elementary's pre-kindergarten class line up to go inside after playing outside in the school playground Tuesday morning. Bob King /


At Piedmont Elementary School in Duluth on Tuesday, 4-year-old Aurora Norman successfully arranged several small blue and purple dinosaurs into a line of alternating colors.

"Look at my pattern - teacher, lookit!" she said.

Debbie Farnham's pre-kindergarten class was split into three groups: one making construction-paper models of the classic book character Corduroy, one hearing a story and one playing with patterns using rubber dinosaurs.

The setting was orderly, but low-key and fun, in keeping with the Duluth school district's early childhood teaching philosophy of learning through play.


"We want kiddos to enjoy coming to school, and that play piece is so important," Farnham said.

The class of 20 is enrolled in a voluntary, daily half-day section of free pre-kindergarten. The district was one of 74 in Minnesota that received money to offer the programming this year, thanks to a $25 million investment by the state. Duluth was among less than half of the districts and charter schools that applied for the money to receive some, and it was given $409,000, enough to serve 66 students.

Gov. Mark Dayton hopes to increase funding to schools, as only about 3,300 new students are being served. If there had been enough money for all the schools who sought it, more than 10,000 4-year-olds would have been enrolled in the free preschool program.

"We need to help ensure every young child is in a quality early-learning environment," said Lynn Haglin, vice president of the Northland Foundation and an advocate for early childhood education. "This supports families and all we know about brain development in children, and we need to continue to expand our reach."

Piedmont's sections are full with 40 kids split between mornings and afternoons, but Myers-Wilkins Elementary School, which also received the funding, has a few slots left.

Along with instruction, the money pays for meals and transportation for the kids. There is no income requirement to enroll in pre-kindergarten, but priority is given to families who meet certain risk factors.

The district is working to blend all of its funding sources into one early childhood program, expanding location options for families. It already serves 3- and 4-year-olds in several Head Start and School Readiness classrooms; paid in part with federal and state money, respectively, and available to families who meet income requirements.

But the goal is to create preschool classrooms that hold a mix of students regardless of income, like K-12 classrooms.That avoids isolating a socioeconomic group, said Amy Starzecki, assistant superintendent of the Duluth district.


This year, 424 3- and 4-year-olds are served in 24 half- and full-day sections at Stowe, Laura MacArthur, Lowell, Homecroft and Lester Park elementary schools, along with Piedmont and Myers-Wilkins. Laura MacArthur and Stowe have some blended classes.

The statewide push for voluntary preschool expansion comes in part from years of research that shows the majority of brain development happens between the prenatal period and age 5, said Molly Harney, an associate professor and coordinator of the unified early childhood studies program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"That's why this is so exciting," she said of increased funding. "Knowing the architecture of the brain is dependent on early life experiences, we need to be thinking about (those) and the quality of care and education."

Early learning plays an important part in minimizing achievement and opportunity gaps, which also start before birth, Harney said. But that means that barriers to taking part, such as transportation, for example, need to be eliminated so families living in poverty or dealing with addiction or domestic violence can become involved.

Often kids entering kindergarten who come from low-income families haven't been exposed to as much language as their peers from families with higher incomes, Starzecki said.

"We know if we can get to students earlier, they can have that exposure to good, strong oral and receptive language," she said, along with learning social and emotional behavioral skills. "The sooner we can provide that instruction and support, the more success they have once they hit kindergarten."

Duluth schools are doing a good job of keeping early childhood education age-appropriate, Harney said.

"We need to be really careful not to ratchet; this isn't kindergarten," she said. "We have to be careful we are not teaching in traditional terms because they will have the rest of their lives for that."


Farnham said when families learned of the opportunity at Piedmont's open house, many became emotional. They no longer had to worry about how to pay for preschool, she said.

"I didn't know how they were going to react to going five days a week," she said, because many preschool programs aren't daily. "But they were in tears."

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