Teaching direction; Ed commissioner: Voluntary preschool can direct students to success

Published 8:18 am Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Spanish-speaking mother told Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius on Wednesday that voluntary preschool was not only an important component to her child’s educational development, it also had an emotional element.

“It has been very good,” said the woman, who was not identified and spoke through an interpreter. “I hope funds can continue. It helps them [my children] lose their fear of speaking [English] — and I learn to speak English, too.”

Cassellius was in Austin to get input from teachers, families and administrators on the importance of funding for voluntary preschool — a point of contention in the state Legislature this session.

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Gov. Mark Dayton’s bill would provide $175 million so that all schools can provide voluntary preschool, and Austin would receive $1.5 million to continue its programming. Under a House bill, all funding would be eliminated.

Educators and parents met with Cassellius as she toured Austin’s Community Learning Center and then listened to concerns after the tour.

Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius walks with staff of the Community Learning Center during a visit Wednesday afternoon. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Cutting voluntary preschool dollars would dig deep into a district that is already challenged with an increasingly diverse population, with 27 languages being spoken in the preschool. The Community Learning Center, said Director Amy Baskin, would have to cut staff and reduce programming.

Instructor Lindy Hagstrom says the center offers quality preschool for the community’s children. Early Childhood/Family Education, Early Childhood Special Education and Head Start classes are all served at the center.

“We have worked so hard to do what we’re doing,” she said. “And we’re proud of what we do.”

Baskin said the program is so successful at the CLC, located at Holy Angels Catholic Church, that some classrooms had to find quarters in the elementary school. Hagstrom, for instance, has a classroom at Sumner Elementary School.

Kristi Beckman, who is the integration coordinator for the Austin schools, said the community is soon becoming a primary refugee community, with over 200 Karenni (Burmese) students alone. Having access to preschool is a valuable path to a good education — and to services available.

“The constant message we receive is how much they [refugee populations] value preschool,” she said.

Baskin agreed. Preschool, for many refugee families, becomes an entry point for settling into a community.

Cassellius said she could not find a reasonable answer as to why the House believes the funding should be eliminated and directed only to low-income students.

“Every bit of research supports it,” she said, referring to studies that have shown preschool provides a chance of success when children have optimum kindergarten readiness. “We have a $1.6 billion surplus … so cutting funding; how is that even reasonable? Mind boggling to me.”

“It [research] shows … preschool is an important and fundamental step to kindergarten,” she said.

Cassellius talks with Community Learning Center Director Amy Baskin, from left, preschool instructors Lindy Hagstrom and Dianna Wald Photos by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

However, during a stop in Austin on Wednesday, state District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, argued in favor of scholarships for children instead of Dayton’s plan to boost pre-K education.

She argued the pre-K programs have simply shifted students from private preschools to public ones in Albert Lea.

Instead, she’d like to see parents take more of an active role in picking what’s best for their child, as Bennett argued there’s no one way to do education.

“We want to get more kids that need that targeted education,” she said. “And so I just do not see this as really serving our children the best.”

Bennett, a retired elementary teacher, argued scholarships will help target more students, including some 3-year-olds to meet their needs.

She also sees that as a way to empower parents to be involved in the process and find the best way to education their child.

“I’m sold on the scholarships,” she said.

There is more that is at risk with educational funding. Austin would be in line for $2.7 million in new funding under the governor’s budget proposal in the 2018-2019 school year. The Senate proposal would be for $1.6 million; and the House proposal would be for $1.8 million.

—Jason Schoonover contributed to this story