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Minnesota spends $125 million a year to teach 4-year-olds. Here's why

From left, Samantha Carlson, Adrian Vang, and Lydia Pettey drink milk and eat Goldfish crackers at the start of class in Julie Heroff's preschool class at Castle Elementary School in Oakdale on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press)1 / 3
Julie Heroff and Mannan Asif make the "H" sound by blowing the sound on their hands in preschool class at Castle Elementary School in Oakdale on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. "It's a tactile, hands-on approach," Heroff said. "It helps them make that sound." (Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press)2 / 3
Rachel Monger, left, and Everleigh Thornberg practice printing their names in Julie Heroff's preschool class at Castle Elementary School in Oakdale on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press)3 / 3

ST. PAUL — After a decade teaching preschool, there's something about working with the youngest learners that keeps Julie Heroff coming back.

It's the moments when children find their independence and begin to speak up, to advocate for themselves.

"I guess that's what I love the most," she said recently on the playground of Castle Elementary in Oakdale, Minnesota, where she teaches two half-day preschool classes. "Those are the moments that wrap you up and keep you going."

Educators are increasingly certain that the skills children learn in preschool classes like Heroff's are essential to success in kindergarten — and can help close the academic achievement gap between poor and minority children and their peers.

Amy McGuire, who teaches down the road from Castle at Richardson Elementary, said it's easy to tell which students attended a preschool program before kindergarten.

"They have a huge jump on things," McGuire said. "They're a little more confident and a little less terrified."

This year, more Minnesota 4-year-olds than ever before are in school, thanks to a steady increase in early-learning funding that has grown to more than $250 million in the current $18.8 billion two-year education budget, approved in May.

Another $222 million is being spent over two years to help families pay for child care, with an increasing focus on preparing children for school.

There are also established private preschools across the state where parents can use scholarships and other public assistance.

What has emerged is a mixed delivery system that taps a half-dozen revenue streams to send more than 22,500 kids to preschool this year.

What they learn

Preschoolers don't just focus on learning their colors, numbers and letters. To get ready for kindergarten, 4-year-olds need to learn social and emotional skills that allow them to be active participants in the classroom rather than disruptive distractions.

They need to be able to interact with other students, use self-control to moderate their behavior and speak up for themselves to participate in class or express their needs.

Students learn these skills not by sitting at little desks reciting numbers and letters, but through class discussion, small group projects, independent and collaborative play, and one-on-one time with teachers.

Heather Sanders, early-learning coordinator for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, says students need to learn how to retrieve a lost toy or settle a minor dispute with a classmate without asking a teacher to intervene.

"I like to call it 'getting-my-shovel-back' skills," Sanders said. "You have to have those skills to advocate for yourself."

Heroff and her class of 20 four-year-old students recently gave the Pioneer Press a peek at a typical preschool day:

12:45 p.m. Singing is an essential part of a preschooler's day. Class begins, ends and is dominated by short, catchy songs that help guide students through.

Heroff's class begins with a quick snack of Goldfish crackers and milk before students gather on a carpet in front of an interactive whiteboard for "circle time."

Heroff sings: "Eyes are watching, ears are listening, voices are quiet ..." to grab the class' attention.

First up is the question of the day: "What is your favorite color leaf?" Heroff asks.

Students volunteer: "Red, yellow ... purple."

To the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" Heroff sings: "Little leaf, little leaf, fly fly fly..." Students toss little paper leaves in the air and try to catch them as they dance around.

Heroff displays a tally of which colors students chose as their favorites. Student Gabriel Skaar is asked to count them up. "Which color did the most students like? Which color got the fewest votes?"

12:55 p.m. Students learn their responsibilities for the day on a whiteboard, where a job chart has their names and faces next to their chore. Jobs include line leader, door holder, cleanup helper.

"If you're a student it's your job to focus your attention and you'll have a really great day," Heroff reminds the class through song.

Calendar is next. Heroff displays the date, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, and the class says it in unison. They clap their hands and sing "Days of the Week" to the tune of TV's "The Munsters" theme.

Student Noah Suilabayu is in charge of telling students about the weather.

"Did you wear a coat to school?" Heroff asks. Students discuss the cool fall day and how they're now wearing long sleeves and pants to school instead of shorts and T-shirts.

1:05 p.m. Mannan Asif tells the class the letter of the week is H. Students make a breathy H sound together.

Lydia Pettey leads the class in an alliteration game, noting that "horse" and "house" sound the same.

For story time, the book of the day is "Fall Leaves Fall." Samantha Carlson is asked: "Where does the story take place?"

Lydia tells the class she likes to jump in a pile of leaves.

Heroff reminds the class that winter is on the way and there will soon be snow to play in.

1:15 p.m. For activity time the class is divided into three groups of six students. One group goes outside with Maggie Butler, the class education assistant, to gather leaves for a collage.

Another group sits at a table and colors leaves and works on writing their names.

The third group stays on the carpet with Heroff, who talks with students about how they are feeling today. "Are you happy? Are you sad? What's another feeling?" One student responds: "Grumpy."

This is part of the district's Second Step curriculum, which helps students improve their social-emotional skills. Sanders, the district's early learning coordinator, says this helps students understand and talk about their feelings with staff and other students.

Heroff asks each student to pick a card with a feeling on it. They hold it up and she takes their picture to add to a book of feelings students will discuss throughout the year.

1:30 p.m. Playtime is an essential part of preschool. Students get 45 minutes a day of free play, or "active learning."

Heroff rotates a wide selection of toys and games at various play stations. There are areas for painting, blocks, action figures, dramatic play, tables where students can draw or use Play-Doh.

Heroff and Butler guide the students through the play areas and watch the interaction between students. Sometimes they intervene as a mediator or referee, but the goal is for students to work out disagreements on their own.

"You have to have those interactions to learn to solve problems," Heroff says.

Playtime is also a chance for specialist Sally Glick to come into the classroom and work one-on-one with students who are learning English.

Heroff's students speak five languages other than English. Some don't speak at all during class, and Glick is there to help them improve their verbal skills.

2:15 p.m. Heroff keeps her class on a strict schedule because, she says, students thrive when they can predict what comes next. Different types of timekeepers are used to structure the day, including an easy-to-read clock timer that signals the end of playtime.

When it's time to clean up, calm music begins to play and Mannan reminds his classmates it's time to put toys away. It's clear students are accustomed to this routine because the chaos the classroom had fallen into quickly returns to order.

Heroff uses small curtains that attach to the front of toy shelves to keep distractions to a minimum during other activities.

2:20 p.m. After the room is cleaned up, students gather again on the carpet for circle time. Today's story is "If You Give a Dog a Donut," and Heroff uses the text to emphasize the meanings of some of the more difficult words.

After the class has gotten the hang of the words, Heroff challenges them to go faster: "Tangled, bandana, pirate, pitch, celebrate, glove," the class says quickly in unison.

Samantha, the day's "Story Star," is asked to describe the setting of "If You Give a Dog a Donut." Heroff coaches her until she settles on "house," which brings the class back to the letter of the day, H.

2:30 p.m. A school day wouldn't be complete without time for outdoor recess. Students put on their coats and hats and line up single file. As they go down the hall, they hold their hands aloft, opening and closing their fists, to keep them quiet and focused and to minimize disruption to other students.

Outside, Heroff's class has the run of a new playground of slides, swings and a big plastic jungle gym. Students welcome the chance to burn off some energy.

3 p.m. The day ends as it began. After recess, students gather for a singalong. The day's numbers include: "Icky Sticky Bubble Gum," "Princess Pat," "The Grizzly Bears," "Mother Gooney Bird" and "Hi, My Name is Joe."

Heroff says not only is singing fun for the children, it gives her more control than if she just talked.

"It grabs their attention," Heroff said. "I can say all I want to say. As soon as I start singing, I've got their attention and focus."

3:15 p.m. All but three of Heroff's 20 students ride the bus to and from school. Older students from throughout the building come to help the preschoolers get to their buses. This is another way Castle tries to build community.

'Chaos part of the fun'

Heroff goes through this routine nine times a week, with a morning class that meets on five days and an afternoon class that meets on four. After lunch on Fridays, she spends time collaborating with other teachers.

Even though she's licensed to also teach older students, Heroff doesn't want to give up the chaos of working with preschoolers.

"The chaos is part of the fun," she said.

When preschool is successful, there is less classroom chaos for kindergarten teachers like McGuire, at nearby Richardson Elementary. That's important because as the state's kindergarten curriculum has become more rigorous, students have to be able to focus.

"The pre-K kids know how school works, and that is a huge gift for a kindergarten teacher," McGuire said. "We can jump into the academics."

This is the first year Castle has had a preschool classroom, and Principal Bridget Bruner says staff members have high hopes they'll see an impact similar to what's been experienced at Richardson. She'd find a way to add another classroom if she could, but the district's resources remain modest.

"I think in the long run, it will save money because we will have kids that are better prepared," Bruner said.

How Minnesota pays for preschool

As Minnesota has upped its investment in early learning, several programs have been created or expanded to distribute the funds. The state is expected to spend more than $500 million on these programs over the next two years.

• Public preschool: A program favored by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton that provides per-pupil funding for public schools to offer preschool. It currently receives $50 million in state funding in the two-year state budget, but Dayton wants a universal program that would be more costly.

• Preschool scholarships: Republicans favor this program because it prioritizes low-income students. Two types of scholarships receive $140 million in the current budget. One type can be used for public or private preschool; the other is only for use at public schools.

• School readiness: $67 million goes to school districts to support a variety of early-learning programs including preschool, childhood screenings and early special-education interventions. Dayton and the Legislature recently agreed to create a new program, School Readiness Plus, that directs $50 million to programs for low-income students.

• Head Start: A long-standing program that uses $50 million in state and federal funding to offer early-childhood education for students from low-income families.

• Child care assistance: A state and federal program that helps low-income families pay for child care, with a growing emphasis on helping children get ready for kindergarten. It is expected to receive $222 million in state money over the next two years.