Preschools, child care service to benefit from state program

Parents meeting low-income guidelines should soon be able to apply for state scholarships of up to $5,000 per child per year to enroll their child in the Princeton School District’s Hand In Hand preschool or the local Kind Hearts Day Care service.
The Minnesota Legislature funded the early learning scholarship program with $46 million during its last session. Half the money is for fiscal year 2014 and the other half the following fiscal year.
The scholarships will be available to attend Hand In Hand preschool and the Kind Hearts Day Care businesses because a rating service called Parent Aware gave each its highest rating – four stars.
Parent Aware, an initiative led by the Minnesota Department of Human Services in coordination with the Minnesota Office of Early Learning, rates the quality of preschools and day care operations as a service to the public.
Becky Hanson, director of Early Childhood Family Development at Lakes and Pines, said that a Mille Lacs Band Head Start preschool also received this high rating from Parent Aware.
Julie Hume, who owns the Kind Hearts Day Care service in rural Princeton and operates it with the help of two assistants, is affiliated with the federal preschool Head Start program administered by the Lakes and Pines Community Action Council. Lakes and Pines operates in seven counties including Mille Lacs.
Head Start provides extra services for children and families.
It was through being affiliated with Head Start that Kind Hearts was able to get Parent Aware’s four-star rating, Hume said.
Gwen Anderson, coordinator of the early childhood programs in the Princeton School District, said that Hand In Hand preschool and Kind Hearts received their four-star ratings in advance of the scholarship legislation.
Parent Aware states that its ratings help parents find programs that “go above and beyond to prepare children for school and life.” Preschool staff members and child care providers had to go through certain training to meet the criteria.
Parent Aware’s website states that it “wants all Minnesota children to be ready for kindergarten. Parent Aware provides free, research-based tools and resources that help parents ask important questions and make informed choices about high quality early learning opportunities.”
Hume said families involved with her day care service “grow as a whole” as a result of her meeting requirements to earn Parent Aware’s four starts. She said it has made her become more professional, better organized and more aware of what children need to know to get ready for kindergarten and beyond.
Parent Aware states that it began as a pilot project because “in Minnesota today, half of children arrive at kindergarten under prepared,” and notes that the state plans to make Parent Aware ratings available statewide by 2015.
Anderson called the recent early childhood scholarship legislation “the big kahuna.” She said she had been watching the Legislature throughout the last session, hoping the scholarship bill would pass.
Neither Anderson nor Hanson at Lakes and Pines could say when the scholarships would be first given in Mille Lacs, only saying that it would be no later than 2015. Anderson advised that anyone interested should check out the Parent Aware website for more information.
Hand In Hand preschool had about 220 children enrolled last school year and it offers one-, two- and three-day options for a child to attend each week. Anderson said that if enough scholarships are obtained, she hopes to set up a four-day-per-week option that would include a child care component, transportation and meal plan.
“Now with all-day kindergarten (adopted by the Princeton district), we need to prepare kinds for longer days,” Anderson said.
Anderson mentioned that space is an issue in the district office building where the Hand In Hand preschool is located but thought enough extra room could be found for adding the four-day option.
“I’m jazzed up like nobody’s business,” she said about the scholarship news. “Funding for preschool hasn’t been increased since 1993.”
Local scholarships for children to attend Hand In Hand last school year totaled $36,045, but there was no state subsidy, she noted.