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District 196 puts a new emphasis on early learning

Independent School District 196 is putting a new focus on early-childhood education in hopes of closing racial and financial achievement gaps among its students.

Elementary education director Julie Olson presented what she called a broad vision of that effort Monday, pointing in particular to a need for better access to the district's all-day kindergarten and pre-school programs.

That kind of access is important, Olson said, because it provides a foundation for later learning. Good early education reduces the need for remedial help later and increases the likelihood a student will graduate.

"It's totally about investing in our future," Olson said.

Making that investment will not necessarily be easy. The district already offers many programs aimed at its youngest students, but Olson said there are barriers to access. There are long waiting lists for pre-school programs, and not all parents can pay the fee the district currently charges for all-day kindergarten.

According to Olson, only 6 percent of incoming kindergarten students in District 196 have participated in one of the district's pre-school programs. In Prior Lake that number is 20 percent, and in the South Washington County district it is 50 percent.

Olson said there is less participation in the district's all-day Kindergarten Plus program among Title I students -- those from low-income families -- than there is among other students.

"The very kids we want to make sure get that service aren't able to participate," Olson said.

That population is growing, too. In the past 10 years, the number of elementary students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches has grown from 8 percent to 25 percent.

There could be some help on that front in the near future. The Minnesota Legislature is discussing a bill this session that would fund voluntary all-day kindergarten for all students.

That still wouldn't solve all of the district's problems, though. Having money for all-day kindergarten doesn't do much good if there is no space. Olson estimated Monday that adding all-day kindergarten districtwide would require 14 additional classrooms at Title I schools and seven at non-Title I schools. Expanding pre-school programs would require 23 additional classrooms, 10 at Title I schools.

"We don't have room at most of our schools for that program," Olson said.

Olson said space tends to be tightest at Title I schools, where the need is greatest.

School board member Jackie Magnuson said Olson's presentation this week "put meat on the bones" of a discussion that has been going on for years in the district. But it will be a while yet before anyone can sit down and eat. The district formed an early learning leadership team of 36 staff members and other representatives in 2012. Olson said a long-range planning task force has been meeting "intensively" for the past few months.

In addition to discussing programs and space needs, that group has talked about better communicating the opportunities that are available.

Olson said some of the barriers that have been identified could come down as early as next year, at least in some district schools. But she expects to keep working on longer-term solutions.

"We have to pay attention to early learning to a degree we haven't before in our school district," Olson said.