Opinion: Invest early and well if we want vibrant rural communities
What are we waiting for? That's what Blandin Foundation asked Minnesota legislators last week at a state hearing on building the world's best workforce.
The evidence is overwhelming that well-placed investments in the success of our children promise huge returns for our communities. In fact, the most effective workforce development begins before kindergarten.
Eight years ago, Blandin Foundation took a leap of faith with communities in Itasca County. Facing high child poverty rates and growing achievement gaps for at-risk kids, as a region we went all-in. We believed we could wrap children and their families in quality, well-coordinated support so that every child would be ready to learn and succeed by kindergarten. We took a risk that focusing investments on the front end of life would save communities even more in reduced demand for special education, incarceration, unemployment supports, substance misuse, etc.
It's the best investment any of us ever made. From Head Start to the school system to county services to our local college, we created a partnership called Invest Early. A single application for a family to access support. High quality early care and education. Comprehensive preschool classrooms. Direct access to training and employment support for moms and dads. Links to health care.
Hundreds of Invest Early kids are starting kindergarten ready to learn, and their success is holding. Through coordination, focus and data-driven investment, Invest Early has closed the readiness gap, and at-risk kids are not going to be playing catch-up for the rest of their lives. All the details are at www.investearly.org.
St. Paul-based Wilder Research has studied the economic value of investing in healthy development and school readiness. Each low-income child at risk of school failure who becomes ready for kindergarten returns to school systems, Minnesota taxpayers and society savings and revenue of $55,928. Today in Minnesota, 92,000 children under the age of six are living in low-income working families.
Minnesota's rural communities, especially, are doing some amazing things for their kids. They are taking holistic approaches, embracing success for kids from cradle to career. Kick-starting life with early childhood investments and sustaining community support all along the spectrum, accessing 21st century skills, organizing around out-of-school time, nudging all students to complete secondary education and to be prepared for a career. We can all learn from each other.
In Blandin Foundation's testimony, we asked legislators to support community innovation, to appreciate our risk-taking and help scale-up effective approaches. And to take some of the equally bold steps that only the state can take.
To be bold, our leaders will need the support, appreciation and expectations of rural communities, where we know every child and impact is so visible.
There is no reason for any of us to wait.
Kathleen Annette, M.D., is the president and CEO and Michael Johnson, Ed.D., is a trustee and chairman of Blandin Foundation.