Businesses recognizing important of pre-K education

Tom WestWhy are business people becoming more interested in kindergarten readiness?

It’s not because they want to roll back the child labor laws. It’s because they realize that in the high-tech economy of the 21st century, the jobs will go to the adequately educated — and the odds of achieving that status grow longer for every day that a child is unready to learn from that first day of kindergarten.

A 2009 Minnesota Department of Education study found that half of the state’s 5-year-olds are not ready to learn when they hit the school house door.

Many believe that it is up to the schools to get those children in a learning mode, and that they can recover. The results say otherwise.

A study by the Pearson Foundation found that 73 percent assume they will acquire the needed skills in elementary school, but the fact is, by third grade only 70 percent of Minnesota kids are reading at grade level. Our teachers are making improvements in the lives of many, but almost a third are lagging behind by third grade.

Why is this so and how can we close the gap? First, statistics show that 41 percent of all U.S. births now occur out of wedlock. Some like to blame other races for the problem, but, since Stearns and Todd counties are mostly white, you should know that even among white non-Hispanic Minnesotans, the out-of-wedlock rate is 26 percent.

Many single parents battle heroically every day to care for their children and make ends meet. Nevertheless, those without an education face long odds of rising out of poverty or providing a better chance for their children to be successful in life.

A Feb. 10 article in the New York Times reports that  a study scheduled to appear this year in the journal Demography found that in 1972 Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as families at the low end. By 2007, that gap had grown to nine to one.

But the gap isn’t just about income. The Times article quotes another survey that found affluent children under age 6 spend 1,300 more hours in places other than their homes, day care centers or schools than low income children do. What’s more, affluent children under 6 spend 400 more hours on literacy activities than low-income children.

The race begins that first day of school, and some kids start out by the curb and others start in the library.

In Stearns and Todd counties, the Census Bureau says, 12.9 and 14.9 percent of the citizenry respectively live below the poverty level compared to 10.6 percent statewide. Among residents over 25, 89.9 percent in Stearns and 85.8 percent in Todd are high school graduates compared to 91.3 percent statewide. I daresay that lower graduation rate is a major contributor to the higher poverty rate.

What can be done? Long-term, it seems obvious, it would help if we did more to encourage young people to get married before they have children.

Unfortunately, the insane welfare policies implemented in the 1960s that paid out-of-work moms more if they had more children and cut their welfare check if dad was contributing to the household income, means that, in some cases, families are now in the fourth or fifth generation without stable male and female role models. Mentoring and early childhood/family education programs are working to overcome that, but with the out-of-wedlock birth rate still in the stratosphere, more needs to be done.

In the short term, however, we need to address the question of what an impoverished parent can do that will make a difference in their child’s school success.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, recognizing the importance of creating a workforce that is successfully educated without regard to income, has recently introduced an interesting Web site that helps parents, grandparents and other care-givers determine if their pre-schooler is on track to be ready to learn on that first day of school. Amy Walstien, the Minnesota Chamber’s director of education and workforce development policy, explaining the Chamber’s involvement, said that pre-school education is “one of the most efficient investments we can make.”

You can find the Web site at

Many people believe that if a child knows the alphabet and can count to 10 on Day One that they are ready to learn. Any kindergarten teacher will tell you that there’s much more involved. It’s also about social and emotional skills. Can they sit still long enough to learn? Can they follow a multi-part direction like, “Go to the kitchen and get a fork and then come back and have some pie.”

The Web site tells parents of children as young as 2 years if the child is developing normally in all areas.

If your child is on track, that’s great. But if not, help is available. The state has a Web site, Minnesota Parents Know, that offers parenting tips and will answer most parents’ questions. It can be found at

Those who have concerns about their child’s development after doing the Is Your Child Ready evaluation, should call the state Help Me Grow office at (866) 693-4769. For 3- and 4-year-olds your local school district will provide a free early childhood screening to test learning, vision and hearing.

Everyone wants their child to succeed in life. Increase the odds by doing everything possible to make sure yours is ready to learn on that first day of kindergarten.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320) 352-6569 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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