The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 23, 2013

Early Childhood Initiative turns 10

By Amanda Dyslin

---- — Every child who goes through screening for early childhood education in Brown County goes home with a basket of goodies — crayons, glue, scissors and lots of activities for parents to do with their children.

That's about 330 baskets per year, and it's just one example of the positive impact the Early Childhood Initiative has had in Brown County during the past decade, said Betty Uehling, director of early childhood and family education programs in New Ulm.

For the past 10 years, the Minnesota Initiative Foundations have collaborated on an initiative that has worked to help the state's youngest residents. The Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative has grown to include 90 community and county coalitions based in more than 300 sites, said Sara Carlson, program officer for the Southwest Initiative Foundation. And each coalition is tailored to its region's unique needs, she said.

For example, a need in one community might be a new playground or an indoor play space. In the past in rural communities there was a need for safe baby-changing stations, she said.

“It looks unique in every community,” Carlson said.

Uehling, who has headed up Brown County's coalition since the beginning, said the goals have remained consistent — to look at the social and emotional needs of children and to provide support for child care providers.

A main priority over the years has been to offer training to child care providers.

“We had a speaker who did a wonderful presentation on, 'What are some things they already have in their homes that they can use to get their kids ready for school?'” Uehling said.

Uehling said the initiative has helped pull those in the Early Childhood Education and Family Education closer to child care providers.

“They don't see us as someone who's looking down at them; they really see us as a partner,” she said.

The initiative also has made possible workshops, home visits to child care providers, and educational materials for emotional development and nutrition, among other things.

“It's just very successful,” Uehling said.

Overall, the network of coalitions focuses on quality care and education for children from birth to age 5. The guiding principles are that every child must have the opportunity to learn and must enter school ready to learn, and that investing in young children leads to a positive economic impact on communities, among other things.

“For every dollar you invested, you have the chance of having it returned to society from $7 to $16,” Carlson said, referring to the money saved on incarceration, remedial education and social services, according to research by the Federal Reserve.

Carlson said the goals of the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative have remained consistent with its original mission, which is to partner with local leaders to ensure quality care and education of our youngest children are a top priority, Carlson said.

The local, regional and statewide effort educates people on the first five years of rapid brain development that forms lifetime personalities, social skills and learning capacity; promotes parents as the most important caregivers of young children; helps community coalitions create a shared vision and plan of action for young children and families; and provides training, financial and technical assistance to implement quality, community-based opportunities, among other things.

In 2012, the McKnight Foundation made a three-year grant of $900,000 to the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation for the Early Childhood Initiative. The grant is to strengthen the early literacy goal of improvement pre-K to grade 3 outcomes for children across the state.

Carlson said the goals of the initiative will remain consistent moving forward.

“What we are really focused on now is helping communities and coalitions deepen their impact and widen their impact,” she said.

New Ulm, Lake Crystal, St. James, Windom and Mountain Lake all have active coalitions. Greater Mankato Area United Way's Success by Six program has a similar mission to the Early Childhood Initiative.