Early education’s promise inspires scholarship campaign

MinneMinds aims to grow stateÂ’s pre-kindergarten scholarship fund

Cooper Asbury, Bruno Sulser and Beckett Breece play in the Mayflower Early Childhood Center courtyard. Credit: Dylan Thomas

TANGLETOWN — Last year, Mayflower Early Childhood Center Director Nanci Olesen was “thrilled” when the Minnesota Legislature authorized $23 million in new pre-kindergarten scholarships.

The feeling didn’t last.

Mayflower staff helped the parents of a dozen qualifying children fill out applications for the scholarships, which aim to increase access to high-quality childcare for low-income families. Leah Popova, the Montessori preschool’s parent outreach coordinator, made sure the applications got in early. All 12 were denied.

It’s a story Olesen shared in April as the legislature, now working with a $1.1-billion state budget surplus, once again considered boosting the funding available for scholarships. Urging on the effort was MinneMinds, a statewide coalition formed last year that wants to see $150 million annually in the scholarship fund, enough to provide scholarships for 20,000 3- and 4-year-olds each year.

Estimates are the current funding levels are meeting just 9 percent of the scholarship need statewide.

“The reason we need more is it’s been proven this is the age when a child [who] is exposed to high-quality education, they just thrive,” Olesen said.

A body of research

Some of the most cited research backing Olesen’s statement has come out of Minnesota. It was a much-heralded 2003 study by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis economist Art Rolnick that found as much as a 16-to-1 return on public funds invested in early childhood development for at-risk children.

The benefits to low-income children accrue over their lifetime. St. Paul-based Wilder Research has found when students from low-income families start school on the right foot, they’re more likely to graduate on time, get better jobs and pay more in taxes.

The MinneMinds campaign chair, Frank Forsberg of Greater Twin Cities United Way, said, “The long-term pathway out of poverty for kids is education.”

Those who show up unprepared for kindergarten are more likely to drop out of school, work in low-wage jobs, rely on public assistance and end up in the criminal justice system, Forsberg noted, citing the Wilder report. That same report found each unprepared student costs the state $56,000 per year on average.

“As the years tick by, the data is increasingly compelling and certain,” Forsberg said.

To qualify for the scholarships, families must be at or below 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means a household income of about $44,100 per year or less.

The scholarships can only be used at childcare programs that have gone through the Parent Aware rating process or are working toward meeting Parent Aware quality guidelines. Under that system, Mayflower is awarded four stars, the highest rating.

Forsberg said the idea is to increase access to high-quality early childhood education while at the same time encouraging more programs to meet high standards.

Families in need

Gabriela Orozco-Delmont, a classroom assistant at Mayflower, is one of the parents who applied for a pre-kindergarten scholarship last year. Orozco-Delmont and her husband have two daughters, and Andrea, who just turned 5 in April, attends Mayflower.

Two years ago, Orozco-Delmont was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer, and although her recent check-ups have been positive, she and her husband are still dealing with the debt from her medical care. With financial assistance from her in-laws, they can afford to send Andrea to Mayflower, but money is tight at home. 

“I’m a Montessori teacher and I believe in this method,” she said. “If it wasn’t what I really believed, she wouldn’t be here.”

The state scholarships are currently capped at $5,000 per year, an amount Olesen said would cover about five months of full-time tuition at Mayflower. The scholarship program also funds grants to qualifying early childhood centers, who then distribute the funds among their families, but Mayflower’s application for $50,000 was also denied.

Olesen said the center remains committed to serving families from diverse economic backgrounds. It receives financial support from the Hiawatha Foundation and Mayflower Church and also hosts several fundraisers each year to support its own need-based scholarship program for families.

Laurie Davis, president of the center’s board of directors, said about a quarter of Mayflower’s 92 children attend on scholarship, and on average it covers about one-third of tuition. Scholarships can mean the difference between a child attending part- or full-time, a full year or just a few months.

“We can only have so many bake sales to try to support the cost of providing a high-quality education,” Davis said.

She was joking, but Mayflower’s big March fundraiser included a cake walk.

Building momentum

Joyce Preschool, another MinneMinds coalition member, had better success winning grants this fall. Executive Director Sarah Clyne said “a handful” of families were awarded scholarships, and the state granted Joyce $38,000 to distribute to its needy families.

“For us, that allowed us to provide full scholarships to about 11 families that we currently have enrolled at Joyce,” Clyne said.

A four-star rated program like Mayflower, Joyce serves 105 students at two locations in the Central and Windom neighborhoods, and about half of its families get some form of tuition assistance, Clyne said.

A bill working its way through the Minnesota Senate in early April would have added $8.8 million to the pre-kindergarten scholarship fund in 2015 and another $13.3 million over the 2016–2017 biennium. That’s roughly a fifth of the way to the $150-million-per-year goal set by MinneMinds.

Forsberg, though, said he felt “very positive” about the progress so far.

“For us, this is all about a bigger conversation in 2015,” he said.