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Refreshingly, Children's Defense Fund report highlights some bright spots amid the bleak

Every year, the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota releases a report (PDF)  on the state of the state’s children. KIDS COUNT pulls together data from a host of sources to present a comprehensive, cradle-to-college statistical portrait of children’s welfare.

The takeaway from the 2010 edition for anyone interested in education: Investing in early childhood education is the most effective way to winnow the achievement gap, boost college readiness and ensure Minnesota has a skilled workforce.

“Offering quality preschool has shown to be more effective than any other intervention in boosting test scores, helping children perform at grade level, increasing high school graduation rates, and producing better economic and social outcomes in adulthood,” researchers reported.

“Unfortunately, not enough of these programs are available for all the children. For example, 93 percent of three-year-olds and 90 percent of four-year-olds did not receive a public pre-kindergarten or Head Start experience in 2009.”

There are more noteworthy details, but first a digression is in order: KIDS COUNT is always an impressive body of research, but in recent years the few remaining journalists covering children’s issues have been hard-pressed to find a headline that’s not depressingly familiar. Too many kids are born into poverty, and too few resources are dedicated to helping their families achieve self-sufficiency.

Our fear, of course, is that that’s as far as most non-masochists can stand to read. So it’s a delight to report that, grim datasets notwithstanding, the recently released 2010 KIDS COUNT book manages to seem hopeful and forward-looking.

This year, the researchers chose to mostly leave the numbers to self-explanatory charts and graphs and instead devote the bulk of the data book, as they call it, to profiling Minnesota’s children of color and American Indian children.

The disparities between the state’s white and minority children are as stark as ever, but there’s something else here: An emerging picture of the poorly documented strengths and complexities of many of those communities. Anyone who spends any time considering the intersection between public policy, education and child welfare would do well to print out all 56 pages (or call CDF-Minnesota for a bound copy) and spend a little time perusing them.

It’s old news that Minnesota has one of the highest levels of racial disparity in high school graduation rates. Some of the numbers KIDS COUNT reports illustrate this gap. Twenty-nine percent of the state’s white 12th-graders participate in fine arts every day, as opposed to 11 percent of African-American students. Black 12th-graders are more than three times as likely as white students to report not feeling safe at school.

White students are twice as likely as Latinos and almost three times as likely as Asians to participate in sports every day. And white and American Indian students are least likely to say they don’t participate in activities because they cost too much.

The report also found that many students continue their high school education beyond four years. A third of African-American students and about a quarter of American Indian and Latino students either finish in five years or obtain a GED.

CDF’s researchers present a strong case for the preventing this gap from opening in the first place:

It is possible to mitigate the risk factors children of color and American Indian children are exposed to early in life,” the report states. “Experts recommend early intervention during the first years and before school entry so that disparities do not have a chance to persist and widen....

Stable, nurturing, and enriching environments in the early years get children ready for later school achievement. Unfortunately, research on disparities in cognitive, social, behavioral, and health outcomes has found differences in children by race and ethnicity as young as nine months. These effects continue to grow and by 24 months a large gap exists. As the gap persists and widens over time, large inequalities are found throughout a child’s academic career in educational test scores, graduation rates, and college readiness. Minnesota’s children of color and American Indian children have some of the largest achievement gaps in the country.

Research concludes, however, that race is not a reason for these disparities but that the differences are explained by other factors such as the environments where these children reside. If children are living in neighborhoods with many negative resources such as violence, drugs, vacant buildings, or crime, it will be toxic to their development. Many times these children do not have access to quality preschool programs or other early childhood experiences. Accredited preschools can be too expensive for some families and public preschool options have limited space. When families of color are not connected to the same economic resources, community supports, or educational opportunities their children also miss out on important benefits ...

Nonetheless, state spending on early childhood education has plummeted since 2003, when the Legislature made the first of two huge cuts to public funding. According to another nonprofit tracking family welfare, the Minnesota Budget Project, following the first round of cuts, from 2003 to 2005, 11,000 children from working class families lost their state preschools subsidies. After that, from fiscal year 2004 to fiscal year 2007, the state further cut funding for child care assistance by a cumulative total of $250 million.

As CDF-Minnesota’s research director, Kara Arzamendia is as familiar with the data as anyone. “The research has been clear for a long time — early childhood education is where we are going to get the biggest bang for our buck,” she told MinnPost. “Families are now more vulnerable to what’s happening in the current recession because of supports that had been cut before. So where does that leave these families?”

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