Supporting Early Childhood Strengthens Schools

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

District 777 has been seeing declining enrollment for several decades now as family sizes have shrunk, as farm sizes get larger and there are fewer kids in rural areas, and as the populations of small towns shrink as older people die and not enough young people move in to replace them.

Unless we can do something to reverse those three primary causes of a declining rural population, our options on how we can repopulate the classrooms in our schools are very limited.

However, not all the losses we are seeing in our school enrollment numbers comes from a declining population. Other losses can be attributed to the loss of programs we offer students, the lack of daycare for young families that can have parents looking for places in other communities, and the lack of early childhood program space for young children.

These are all issues the community can, and must, address if we are going to have a chance to strengthen our schools, keep the parents and kids we have here committed to Benson Public Schools, and attract new people to the community. When we are selling the Benson area to new businesses, the strength of our schools is a key factor. When we are trying to convince parents taking jobs in our area that this is a great place to raise their children, one of the first places they will judge us on is our schools.

Businesses in rural Minnesota are struggling to attract employees. A community that makes a concerted effort to make itself attractive to young families goes a long way toward aiding those businesses with their employee recruitment efforts.

District 777’s Board of Education is currently looking at a 10-year maintenance program for its three buildings – the senior high, junior high and Northside Elementary. As part of that discussion, the board is considering how it will address the growing need for early childhood education classes.

Today, it can’t house all the four-year-olds whose parents would like to see them in an early childhood class. It is also making plans to have classes for three-year-olds in the junior high rather than at Northside.

The inability to adequately and fully meet the needs of parents looking for early childhood classes for their children means that we could be losing them as future students. Considering students are worth about $7,000 each to the district’s funding, each lost child means less money for education of those students who remain.

“Early childhood is obviously a really big deal in the minds of the people down in St. Paul, but it is actually a bigger deal in the minds of the parents of young kids in all of our districts,” architect Paul Youngquist of Architects Rego + Youngquist of St. Louis Park, told the school board last month.

The people in St. Paul he is talking about are our state Legislators and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Dayton has consistently pushed the Legislature to increase funding for early childhood programs.

“I have observed in the districts that have a really nice place to bring your zero to five-year-olds, the parents bring them there,” Youngquist said. “The districts that don’t have a very attractive spot for the kids, well, the parents are bringing them somewhere else. If you bring a two-year-old someplace and they are in a program for three years and they start to make all kinds of friends, and it seems like it is kind of easy to bring them to the next city over, they will stay there.”

At a March school board meeting, Youngquist told the board about a school district where the number of kids enrolled was steadily declining each year as parents took their kids elsewhere. As one way to try turn around that decline, the district built an early childhood center and the numbers started going up significantly each year, he said. “It motivated parents to keep kids locally,” Youngquist said. “When I look at your district, that really jumps out at me.”

As Youngquist has worked with the school board to address the maintenance work its three buildings need over the next decade, an essential part of the discussion has revolved meeting the space needs for the district’s youngest students. At April’s board meeting, he presented sketches of an addition to the Northside that would add six classrooms.

His design features a canopied entryway to the addition to give an attractive look to parents as they bring their children to school. It would also break away from the standard classroom building design that features classrooms lining the sides of straight hallways. Rather, the area outside the classrooms would be broken up with “creative space” for young children to do indoor activities. Youngquist has estimated that the 9,700-square-foot addition would cost about $3 million.

“No one is pushing this, but we are saying if the thought was maybe we should do something for early childhood, this is at least an idea you can pick apart,” he said.

We think it is an idea the board of education should definitely be picking apart in the coming weeks as it reviews how it will meet the needs of the district’s residents as well as its building needs for the coming years.

Many on the board members already seem to realize the value of adding the early childhood space, but may be wary of bringing the expenditure before the district’s taxpayers fearing they’ll vote it down as they did the $18.2 million building referendum put before them last year. However, we feel this is a project that sells itself with a good number of the residents and businesses of the community.

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