On Early Childhood Ed and School Safety, Minnesota Gets it Right

A common sight in America’s classrooms is children raising their hands when they know the answer to a question. Teacher, parents, and lawmakers also have answers, especially in Minnesota. They, too, are raising their hands to help solve some of the more challenging issues facing public education, and this could not be more evident than in the city of Bloomington, where NEA President Dennis Van Roekel concluded the second day of NEA’s 2013 Back-to-School Tour.

The first stop took the tour to Hillcrest Community School, where fifth-graders Gregory Pedenko and Sara Grosser were tasked to guide Van Roekel, along with Education Minnesota President Denise Specht, Bloomington Federation of Teachers (BFT) President Wendy Marczak, and other school district leaders, through several classrooms.

They visited a music class, a fourth-grade science class, and their very own fifth-grade classroom. Part of what makes Hillcrest unique is that it is the only school in the state to use the Artful Learning model, which extols the life work of Leonard Bernstein as an artist, teacher, and scholar. This model encourages infusing the curriculum of every subject with art.

But the centerpiece of the tour involved Ann Hanson’s full-day preschool classroom, which is part of the school’s Early Learners Academy.

Aside from its school-wide, art-based curricula, Hillcrest has successfully implemented a full-day early childhood education program that may serve as a model for other schools, now that Minnesota legislators passed a bill earlier this year to fund all-day kindergarten. The law applies statewide and schools are expected to implement a full-day program starting next year.

While many state lawmakers across the country are gutting school funding, elected officials in Minnesota decided to invest more than $15 billion, for the first time in many years, into education from preschool to college.

“The best part about [a full-day program] is kids are in a school setting,” said Hanson, referring to her students who are between the ages of three and five. “They know everyone here, from the custodian to the nurse, and they really feel at home.”

Studies show that children in full-day early childhood education classes have greater reading and mathematics achievement gains than those in half-day classes. They produce long-term educational gains, especially for low-income and minority students. And in full-day preschool and kindergarten classrooms, teachers have more time to get to know students and identify and address their learning challenges early–saving money and resources over the long run while increasing the odds that students will be successful later in school.

Early learners in Hanson’s classroom were eager to share their experiences with Van Roekel. Topics included snacks, story time, animals, and a new water bottle.

Nora Young, 4, explained that her favorite part of preschool is “to play outside.” Her classmate Josie Curtis, also 4, agreed, but added “puzzles” to her list.

Bloomington parents have also championed early childhood education programs. Heather Starks, a parent of two students at Hillcrest, is one of them. She also happens to be the president of Parent Advisory Council, a group of volunteer parents and community members who provide support in parenting and parent-child relationships. They operate similar to that of a parent-teacher organization, too.

“All three of my kids have gone through the early childhood programming in Bloomington,” said Starks, “and the resources and skills they gained prior to coming to kindergarten were huge because they were ready to jump right into kindergarten.”

Harks explained that many other parents have seen the benefits of the city’s early childhood education, which is why they are fierce advocates for it.

“I’m so proud of what Minnesota did in the legislative session this year,” said Van Roekel. “To step forward while others are cutting and say, ‘It’s time for full-day kindergarten, it’s time to invest in early childhood’–that is a huge gift. You are giving not only to the children of Minnesota, but to every single citizen who lives here.”

School Safety

Olson Middle School was the final stop on day two of the back-to-school tour. After a meet and greet with dozens of members from the local Bloomington Federation of Teachers, an NEA-AFT merged affiliate, Van Roekel received an overview of the district’s school safety plans.

NEA advocates a four-pronged approach to school safety and recommends increasing access to mental health services; upgrading school facilities by expanding programs and trainings for students and educators; taking meaningful action to help decrease gun violence; and increasing training to help educators identify potential mental health needs, bullying, or high-risk behaviors.

And the middle school is on the right track.

“Security isn’t just about the one-in-a-lifetime chance of a shooter walking into your school. As educators, we want to do more for our students and include prevention,” said BFT President Marczak.

Doing more for students means ensuring that students feel safe. “When kids feel safe and secure, kids learn,” she said.

On hand to give the overview was school safety expert Rick J. Kaufman, the district’s community relations and emergency management director. Kaufman headed the crisis response team to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, when two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher.

“Keeping kids safe includes training and preparation,” he said. But, “we’ve really moved to a point in time now that our schools need to be, sadly, more fortified.”

Fortified doesn’t mean steel bars. Instead, it’s a balanced approach to implementing strong security measures while maintaining a welcoming environment. The district has put out recommendations that include three key areas of security: visitor access, a visitor-management system, and staff training.

What does this look like in practice?

At Olson, which serves as a prototype, a security vestibule now funnels visitors to the school into the office. Here, visitors are greeted and signed into a visitor-management system, which allows office staff to determine if the person belongs in the school before issuing a temporary school badge. School staff no longer allow visitors to wander the halls and they have been trained to stop anyone without a badge.

Eye-in-the-sky security cameras are strategically placed in main corridors, and panic buttons have been installed. When a panic button is pressed, fire doors close. Kaufman explained that in a crisis situation it’s critical to create barriers because, “It’s about protecting students and staff throughout the building.”

Much has been done with current resources. But Kaufman is hopeful that come fall voters will approve a referendum that would set aside $2 million per year for safety and security upgrades throughout the school district.

During the overview, Van Roekel emphasized the need for school counselors, saying that school districts across the country need to put counselors back in America’s public schools instead of eliminating their positions because of budget woes.

“We need to be able to take care of students’ needs as they happen,” he said, “that’s a huge part of the solution.”

The back-to-school tour activities highlight NEA’s “Raise Your Hand for Public Education” initiative, which mobilizes educators, parents, and community leaders to ensure success for all students. Through the initiative, NEA is bringing together people, lifting up good ideas, smart policies, and successful programs.

“One of the most often-asked question I get is, ‘Why did I choose Bloomington?,’” said Van Roekel. “I can tell you very simply. Bloomington is doing it right about early childhood education and school safety. Instead of talking about it, they are doing it.”