Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

For sustained prosperity, Minnesota needs progress in early education, literacy and mentoring

There is a third way to assure a strong future for Minnesota, other than to cut spending or raise taxes, and it is to grow ourselves to sustained prosperity.

There is a third way to assure a strong future for Minnesota, other than to cut spending or raise taxes, and it is to grow ourselves to sustained prosperity. In truth, growth has been the answer more often than not over the last decades of often-unsteady economic waters.

Chuck Slocum

Chuck Slocum

But one thing is painfully clear: To make the growth solution work, we need a very well educated, qualified work force to make the right things happen in our private-sector economy. Currently, employee shortages anticipated in our future work force threaten the state’s economic viability.

A big part of assuring the future work force is the success of Minnesota’s very youngest citizens, about half of whom start kindergarten not fully prepared to succeed and about a quarter of whom, research tells us, never do catch up.

Article continues after advertisement

Such a growth strategy seems to have some bipartisan legs at the Capitol as evidenced by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s implementation, at the encouragement of business, of an innovative Parent Aware Quality Rating and Improvement System to ensure more informed access to high-quality early learning and care programs. Additionally, Dayton has commissioned state-funded scholarships for families of 3- and 4-year-olds, named a new Children’s Cabinet and appointed a 20-member Early Learning Council.

Literacy by third grade
Closely tied to starting early, in my view, is the effective teaching of reading and writing to “age 3 to grade 3” children, some 70,000 of whom are annually found to be at least a year behind in their literacy skill development.

Senate Education Chairwoman Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, spearheaded what I believe to be a powerful economic-development push this year through a tripling of the Minnesota Reading Corps (MRC) appropriation, from $2.75 million to $8.25 million, in spite of the deficit. This money will be most favorably matched by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The cost-effective MRC program has already reached thousands of children who are far behind in literacy. Over the years, it has achieved a 70 to 80 percent success rate, using trained AmeriCorps members as reading mentors in pre-K and K-3 classrooms.

One-on-one adult mentoring
I propose that the third leg of the sustained growth stool is one-on-one adult mentoring. The parents of half of Minnesota’s kids say they’d welcome an adult mentor to help their children succeed, yet only about one in three have such a person available to them.

Mentoring is a one-on-one partnership between a trained adult and a child. The relationship, over time, fosters personal growth for the child by offering a brain to pick, an ear to listen and someone to provide a strategic push in the right direction, when necessary. All about listening and encouragement, mentoring is one highly confidential way for a child to frame lifelong learning strategies that can be extremely helpful all the way to adulthood or at least age 25.

Mentoring works best, of course, when professional training is provided and measures are taken to ensure quality and effectiveness. With the oncoming retirements within the baby boomer generation, by 2020 we will have more senior citizens than children in Minnesota. These oldsters — myself included — will number in the hundreds of thousands and offer young parents and their kids a potentially powerful volunteer resource.

Working together and building on the abundant allies in our communities, Dayton and lawmakers of both parties must hone a widely supported public/private vision, provide sustained leadership and demonstrate the resilient will to develop a future work force essential to growing a sustained economic prosperity.

Chuck Slocum (Chuck[at]WillistonGroup.Com) is president of the Williston Group, a management consulting firm; he has represented early learning and literacy clients.  An active mentor, he is a former state GOP chairman and was executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership.  A version of this commentary appeared in Politics in Minnesota.