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School-readiness report: Poverty biggest hurdle for Minnesota’s vulnerable children

Wilder Research study author says early childhood policies and practices are misdirected.

Early Head Start and Head Start are serving more children than ever before but cannot keep up with the growth of eligible children in poverty.
CORBIS/Walter Bibikow

A new statewide report on school readiness shows many of Minnesota’s youngest citizens face hurdles that affect their learning in kindergarten and beyond.

At the root of the problem is poverty, says Richard Chase, key author of the first School Readiness Report, which was prepared by Wilder Research for the Minnesota Office of Early Learning.

Not only do one in five of the states’ 420,000 infants, toddlers and preschoolers live in poverty, but of that group about 30 percent are children of color whose poverty rate is a steep 61 percent, Chase says.    

Yet the data shows not enough of those youngsters are getting the help they need to succeed.  

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“We are failing many of our kids, especially in communities of color. It’s sort of an indictment of how much we do not invest in all communities. Why is there no urgency in supporting the children who are most vulnerable?” Chase said in an interview.

The report, intended to set up guidelines to help monitor the state’s progress toward the goal of having every child ready for kindergarten by the year 2020, reflects disparities in education, health and social well-being for these children.

That “place[s] their own and our state’s future prosperity at risk,’’ wrote Chase, the senior research manager at Wilder, in a blog.

“Early childhood policies and practices are too metro-centric, too white-centric and too focused on education and literacy as opposed to the whole child,’’ Chase told me, speaking from almost two decades experience collecting, studying and measuring data concerning the healthy development of young children.

Early childhood, he said is the time to prevent achievement and opportunity gaps for children and to ensure children are brought up in safe, secure environments rich in language and learning to ensure healthy brain development and to help them attain their full potential. Otherwise, disadvantage leads to more disadvantage, he said.

For the report, researchers developed “indicators” of kindergarten-readiness that range from mothers’ mental health and access to prenatal care to a child’s access to preschool education and high-quality childcare. They then gathered U.S. Census and state data to draw a full picture of how Minnesota’s youngest citizens are doing.

The report is not surprising in its conclusions, Chase said, but it is a comprehensive look at Minnesota children under age 6 and shows the need to “change the mindset from closing the achievement gap to promoting opportunity as early as possible.”  

In fact, the report was news to some last week. Two early childhood education experts I talked with had not seen it. One, after being emailed the report for comment, said the findings are not new.  

“The information is consistent with the 2012 and 2013 reports produced by the Minneapolis Foundation, entitled “One Minneapolis,’’ Jeffrey Hassan, co-author of “Best in Class; How We Closed the 5 Gaps of Academic Achievement,’’ responded by email.

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According to a 2010 report, only 60 percent of all Minnesota’s kindergartners “demonstrate readiness for school” with children from lower-income families, Latino children and American Indian children having the lowest rates of kindergarten-readiness.

Further, only one-third of 3-year-olds receive the health and developmental screenings that could head off future problems.

Chase points to other highlights.

  • In 2011 data, access to adequate or better prenatal care, which can affect a child’s healthy birth and development, is 12 to 37 percentage points lower for mothers of color than for white mothers.     

  • Mothers of color report higher rates of depression, which affects their children as well. “A mother’s mental health can impact her baby’s brain development and the healthy attachment between parent and child which can affect the child’s physical and mental health and ability to learn,’’ Chase wrote. Overall, about 12 percent of babies have mothers with a history of depression, he said, compared to 2010 data that shows 18 percent of African-American and 28 percent of American Indian mothers reporting depression.

  • “Early Head Start and Head Start are serving more children than ever before but cannot keep up with the growth of eligible children in poverty.” In 2013, those preschool educational programs had only enough slots to enroll about 19 percent of low-wealth children under 6, he said.

  • “Children of color have higher rates of out-of-home placement.” In 2011 about 3,000 children under age 6 were living in “out-of-home placement or foster care with large disparities for American Indian and black children,” Chase wrote, often because of “reported abuse and neglect.”

“It’s time to stop documenting these things and actually take steps to prevent these disparities. They’re not inevitable, they’re preventable,” Chase said, pointing to the positive efforts of the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, St. Paul Promise Neighborhood and smaller, early childhood initiatives around the state.