The new graduates lined up in a timeless ritual, to the triumphant melody, “Pomp and Circumstance.” The eyes of some proud parents glistened with tears. Applause rattled the walls in the Metropolitan Ballroom in Golden Valley.
Upon hearing their names called, one by one, the students marched forth in white cap and gown and grasped their diplomas.
But this valediction was unusual, more beginning than an end. It celebrated the achievements of children of 4 and 5 years old. Children and families who have often experienced barriers to quality education.
In the first weekend of August, 65 scholars received recognition — along with their parents and family educators — for completing their birth to 5 early childhood education program. It was an exercise in celebrating early academic achievements.
Minnesota is about to spread such seedlings across the state — a milestone that is, in itself, worth celebrating.
An estimated 30,000 youngsters born to low-income families now have no access to a boost from early education. State officials aim to cut that number in half.
More Minnesota children soon will be able to begin their journey in early education thanks to a big chunk of $300 million in additional state aid.
Much of the cash, which will help fund early childhood education scholarships, was approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor last year.
That money will be supplemented by support from private donations. To name but one, a grant from the Ciresi Walburn Foundation paid for each of the graduates of the Way to Grow early ed program to receive six books and a bright yellow backpack emblazoned with the message, “Reading is My Superpower.”
These kids — and their families — had taken the first step, that studies and experience show, equip kids with the reading and social/emotional skills to succeed in their earliest years of school and later in life.
The path to trade school or college can begin with the baby steps of toddlers, given the proper help.
Way to Grow enlists parents to work with family educators, who make home visits as early as prenatal. From cradle to crayons, the program sparks a child’s curiosity and social/emotional skills.
Nearly nine of every 10 pre-k students enrolled in Way to Grow were assessed and deemed ready for kindergarten. That number would be far lower without that support.
“What is so different about our particular program is that the whole family is involved,” said Melissa Meyer, Way to Grow director of development. “The parent is the No. 1 teacher, reading, talking, and learning together, getting them ready for school.”
When children receive high-quality early education programming, they are less likely to drop out of school when they reach their teens and more likely to succeed in adulthood.
A strong start for our children is a catalyst for change for the whole community.
Put simply, these children hold the promise of living more affluent lives than their parents. And their parents have proven eager to help.
The buoyant mood at the graduation ceremony illustrated that spirit.
“You see the glowing faces, the cheering and clapping and hugging,” Meyer said. “They all are congratulated because they all put in the work.”
In distant years to come, may those pint-sized graduates find themselves wearing cap and gown again and again to mark their climb out of poverty and into prosperity.
Cheri Rolnick, PhD, MPH, is former associate director of research at the HealthPartners Research Foundation. Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a writer in Minneapolis.