North Mpls targeted for new early learning center

Partnerships formed to better prepare more kids for kindergarten 

By Charles Hallman 

Staff Writer 

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and University of Minnesota officials point out that additional slots for early childhood learning, especially on Minneapolis’ North Side, are needed more than ever because the number of children and families are increasing. U of M Educational Psychology Professor Scott McConnell told the MSR last week that last year, after the state legislature allocated funds for early children education and “promised to focus on high-poverty communities,” he and another faculty member looked into North Minneapolis.

(l-r) Eric Kaler and Bernadeia Johnson
(l-r) Eric Kaler and Bernadeia Johnson

“Literally on the back of an envelope, we pulled together Census information and information from the State licensing board on early childhood and calculated roughly how many kids live in [zip codes] 55411 and 55412 and how many spaces there are,” he recalled. “We found that they are about 1,000 [preschool] spots short. There’s a gap between what we think is the number of children that might be eligible for high-quality early childhood education and those who might [attend these programs].”

Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson added that her district and the university long have worked together on improving public education. Johnson told the MSR that U of M President Eric Kaler has been very helpful every time she has called him. “I didn’t have to convince him that this is the right thing to do. He already was in,” she pointed out.

As a result, MPS and the U of M last week formally joined forces and created the Partnership for Early Learning (PEL). The two sides held a June 25 signing ceremony in the courtyard area between the vacant Willard School and Gordon Center buildings at 16th Avenue and Queen Avenue North, the proposed Early Children Education Center (ECEC) site.

 “We are not going to do this alone,” proclaimed Johnson on the two institutions working together to reduce the achievement gap and prepare children for kindergarten.

Willard School  Photos by Charles Hallman
Willard School
Photos by Charles Hallman

MPS “is an important partner… We are absolutely committed to our kids and to our community. We are going to make a difference for both of them with this program. We have to  close this gap,” added Kaler.

“We are looking at this as a great starting point,” said MPS Chief Operations Officer Robert Doty on the proposed 10,000 square-foot ECEC to be built in between the two existing school buildings, and will include modifications and upgrades to both Willard and Gordon. He pointed out that partnering with the university and the Northside community will create encouraging collaboration, developing new initiatives, and supporting sustained community engagement and collective action. “It accomplishes all three.”

McConnell believes that the ECEC will help existing pre-school programs as well “to work together to improve the results and extend the reach of those activities.”

MPS officials say the anticipated opening is December 2015 and expect the new school to accommodate at least 200 pre-kindergarten students. The center will hold teenage parenting programs, prenatal and parenting education, and other early childhood services as well.

Plans for North Minneapolis Early Children Education Center
Plans for North Minneapolis Early Children
Education Center

Minneapolis School Board Chairman Richard Mammen calls it a “proactive move” to improve early childhood education in the city. “We are looking for input from the community, especially the early childhood community,” said Doty in his closing remarks before tours of both vacant buildings were conducted after the ceremony.

Afterwards, both Kaler and Johnson talked to the MSR.

“It’s critical that we solve this pre-K problem. If a child is not ready to go into kindergarten, they are a step behind out of the box and they are not going to catch up… We are not here to study the community. We are here to put in place programs that work,” said the university president.

Doty also told the MSR that a fundraising committee and a building design committee still need to be established, as well as choosing the building contractor.

“There are a lot of areas where we are going to need public support,” he said. “If we are going to be about issues of closing the achievement gap, we clearly have to make sure that our staff represents [diversity] as well.”

The new center “will help a lot of families,” said Minneapolis School Board Member Kim Ellison.

Added Johnson, “This partnership is really important to me in the district. I’ve seen [U of M officials] step up, and we have seen a much more rich and deep partnership than we ever envisioned.

“It also makes me feel proud to be doing something on the space where my grandmother once was principal,” said Johnson on the proposed preschool center’s site.

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