Early childhood education programs are growing in northeastern Minnesota, but there's still work to do to overcome the challenges families face in accessing the programs, educators say.

More than 250 educators from around the Northland gathered in Duluth on Thursday for the Northland Foundation's 2018 Early Childhood Summit, which included policy updates from Bobbie Burnham, director of early learning at the Minnesota Department of Education, and Kelly Monson, executive director of the Minnesota Children's Cabinet in the Governor's Office.

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School district administrators say they've seen an increased focus on and funding for educating children prior to kindergarten in their communities.

"We've seen a lot of growth in the last several years. We've been at this fight for 20-some, 30-some years and the bar didn't move," explained Lori Fichtner, early childhood program manager for Proctor and Hermantown Community Education.

Fichtner credits organizations such as the Northland Foundation and McKnight Foundation with funding early childhood education initiatives that fueled the growing focus on pre-kindergarten learning. That's coupled with Gov. Mark Dayton's leadership and financial support when it comes to early childhood education in the state, she said.

"It's allowed us to start to bloom and grow and really be able to see some positive change happening for our kids. ... I've seen this bar start to raise, which is giving us all hope after how many years? But we still do face challenges," Fichtner.

Lisa Kruse, community education director in McGregor, said she's seen "a dramatic shift" in early childhood education program attendance in the last five years.

"We're at capacity pretty much every year in every single one of our classes and we've expanded ... so the need is there. What's really grown in McGregor, as well, is the (Early Childhood Family Education) classes. There was a point in time when we just weren't seeing the attendance from our families, but now, they're embracing it," she said.

Educators say that school districts in northeastern Minnesota offer quality programs staffed with dedicated people who see the importance of their work with the young children. However, district officials say they still face issues such as the public's understanding of early childhood education's importance, classroom space constraints, transportation needs and a lack of options and child care.

Fichtner added that there's a perception that early childhood educators are not as qualified as K-12 teachers.

"They're four-year degreed, some of them have master's degrees. It just happens to be in early education rather than a high school science, no less valuable," she said. "That's still a challenge, is just having the general public understand the importance of what these employees, what these people are doing with our youngest children. They're laying the foundation."

Studies tout the importance of preparing children for school, but Fichtner said they have students entering kindergarten who haven't had opportunities to participate in quality preschool programs.

"If you have a child that's coming from an environment where they're not read to, maybe the parents are working two jobs or whatever the circumstances are, that child's already at a disadvantage when they get into kindergarten," she said.

Chris Langenbrunner, the Lake Superior school district's community education director, said parents understand the value of a quality early childhood education program, but the challenge is a lack of options in rural Minnesota.

"You may have a few home day cares, maybe one center in town and the school district will offer pre-K for 3 and 4 (year olds) in early childhood education. But it's kind of a one-stop shop," Langenbrunner said.

A large issue in McGregor is a lack of child care for working parents and Kruse said she hopes to create a "wrap program" where child care is provided before and after a preschool program. However, there's a lack of space for it in McGregor, where enrollment is increasing and the district is facing an overall space shortage, she said.

Transportation to and from early childhood programs in northern Minnesota is "a huge issue," including in Proctor and Hermantown. It's a barrier to parents being able to enroll their children and providing transportation can get expensive for a program, Fichtner said.

"They might have programming available, but there's no public transportation to get kids to it or working parents have a hard time taking off at lunch to run home to get a child from a half-day program and bring them someplace," Fichtner said.

For low-income families in Proctor, Fichtner said they're partnering with the Head Start program to offer a full-time option for 4- and 5-year-olds that includes child care.

"We're trying to look at how we can best meet the needs of families. We need to continue to offer options for families," Fichtner said