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Next step for early learning? Alignment

Minnesota schools must ramp up early learning opportunities and maintain a laser focus on third-grade reading.

What can keep students on track is sustained, aligned, high quality pre-K through third grade instruction.

We’ve long known that third-grade literacy is a key milestone in a child’s academic career and a strong predictor of later success. It’s so strong, in fact, that children who can’t read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

But according to the 2014 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments for third-graders, only 34 percent of black and Latino students and 39 percent of low-income learners were proficient in reading, compared to 67 percent of white students.

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If we’re going to help all Minnesota students reach their full potential, we must close these gaps, meeting them head-on and early on by ramping up early learning opportunities and maintaining a laser focus on third-grade reading.

We’re encouraged by the emphasis on early learning in the “World’s Best Workforce” legislation and Gov. Mark Dayton’s 7-Point Plan for Excellence in Education, as well as the Minnesota Department of Education’s creation of the PreK-3rd Grade Leadership Institute and Office of Early Learning.

We’re encouraged, too, by recent investments to strengthen early childhood education, from rolling out all-day kindergarten to expanding pre-K access. On its own, however, a year of kindergarten or high-quality pre-K is a good start, but not enough to guarantee a child’s future academic achievement.

The key to guaranteeing student success

Cara Quinn

What can keep students on track is sustained, aligned, high quality pre-K through third grade instruction. Research shows that a comprehensive preK-to-thirdgrade approach not only maintains but also enhances academic gains that children make in high-quality pre-K. Without this, the benefits of high-quality pre-K or all-day kindergarten are much more likely to “fade out.”

As educators, we want our work to stick, and to complement that of our colleagues’ so that all students succeed in third grade and beyond. That’s why, in our schools, we’ve taken this research to heart, and supported our teams in aligning curriculum, strategies and tools across preK-third grade.

From professional development to lesson planning, parent engagement to academic interventions, we’re working within and across grades to make sure our students get the most out of their early learning experiences.

Amy Starzecki

At Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul, for example, preK-thirdgrade teachers use consistent assessments and common language to track and communicate students’ literacy progress. At King Elementary School in Deer River, educators work closely with partners — like Invest Early, Minnesota Reading Corps, Community Education and Indian Education — to make students’ transitions from preschool to elementary school as seamless as possible.

Teacher collaboration

In both buildings, teachers meet regularly to review data, tweak core instruction and individualized interventions and review schoolwide progress, in both academics and behavior. They’re collaborating more with each other, constantly adjusting their instruction to better serve students’ needs and talking more candidly and proactively with parents.

The results? Children are showing up to kindergarten on track to read well by third grade. Educators are working together in new ways and more intentionally supporting one another’s teaching. Parents are engaged, with family nights offering more meaningful information about student learning and how to support it at home than ever before.

Report highlights alignment initiatives

Published by MinnCAN with support from The McKnight Foundation, “Starting Strong: Pre-K through 3rd Grade Success Stories from Across Minnesota” highlights alignment initiatives from our schools, as well as Brooklyn Center, Proctor, Winona and Pelican Rapids. In these communities, alignment is helping educators track toward their ultimate goal: third grade literacy for all students.

With the school year in full swing and a newly elected Legislature heading to St. Paul in January, now is the perfect time to take a closer look at successful Minnesota preK-to-third-grade alignment models. Knowing how critical early literacy is, and where Minnesota students currently are, it’s clear that we must learn from these initiatives.

If our state’s recent investments in and focus on early learning are any indication, our state seems ready for a coordinated approach to preK-to-third-grade instruction.

We hope that MinnCAN’s “Starting Strong” report sparks conversations in teacher lounges, school board meetings and legislative hearings at the Capitol to help us take this next step for students.

Cara Quinn is the executive director of Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul; Amy Starzecki is the superintendent of Floodwood Schools and former principal of King Elementary in Deer River.  


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