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Duluth expansion of pre-K is good for all

Razzmatazz, an eight-foot-tall crayon character, visits a pre-kindergarten class at Lester Park Elementary School. (Photo by Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune)

In a few weeks, Duluth Public Schools will invite 66 4-year-olds into two new pre-K classrooms. The expansion arrives thanks to a $409,000 state grant to provide additional high-quality pre-K programming to kids across the state. It's part of Gov. Mark Dayton's initiative, supported by the Minnesota Senate, to help close the achievement gap by ensuring kids have the skills necessary to succeed when they begin kindergarten.

Duluth's portion of grant money was part of a larger pot of $25 million which we approved during the 2016 legislative session. The funding was in high demand. Some 60 percent of districts that applied for the funds were denied, not because of lack of merit but lack of funds. Proof that pre-K is popular and that schools and parents are asking for it.

Amy Starzecki, Duluth Public Schools assistant superintendent, recently discussed what this means for parents and families in Duluth. Starzecki said that pre-K money is a lot more flexible than Head Start or School Readiness dollars, both of which are also used to target low-income students. Pre-K money can also be used to hire teachers and provide transportation. When not available, these can be the difference between a child learning the skills they need and falling behind before they even started kindergarten.

According to Starzecki, pre-K is one of Duluth's best strategies for closing the achievement gap. For every $1 Minnesota invests in early learning, the return on investment can yield up to $16. Duluth school leaders believe this kind of investment makes smart fiscal sense. And I agree. But even with the addition of two new pre-K classrooms, Duluth Public Schools are still only serving a small fraction of 4-year-olds.

What this means is we need consistent pressure on future legislative leaders to ramp up our investment so ALL 4-year-olds across Minnesota have access to this life-changing education. The research is conclusive. Ninety percent of brain development occurs before age 5. Nearly half of Minnesota children enter kindergarten not fully prepared to succeed. We know how to fix this, so next session I encourage the Legislature to make another important step forward to more fully expand pre-K investment in Minnesota.

While my legislative service has come to an end, I have no intention to fade away. I am passionate about our community and will remain engaged. That includes education, a topic near and dear to my heart, having spent much of my adult life as an educator. If Minnesota wants to be on the cutting edge of educational achievement, investment in quality early childhood education is essential. Duluth is on a great path. Let's keep building on this progress.

Roger Reinert

Roger Reinert is a Duluth resident.