Ari Kiener was MinnCAN’s public affairs manager from 2013-2016.

If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve likely caught on that we’re busy with yet another (although truncated) statewide tour! This time, with the support of The McKnight Foundation, we’re traveling near and far—really far—to find Minnesota schools and communities doing exceptional work around pre-kindergarten to grade three alignment to boost student literacy.

We’re eager to share with you all that we’ve seen and learned, and to hone in on themes and policy recommendations from our conversations with changing-the-odds educators and community leaders across the state, from St. Paul to Pelican Rapids. For now, though, while we’re still busy with site visits, we’ll report back on only a few major takeaways and highlights from each visit.

We kicked off our preK-3 tour in late May at King Elementary in Deer River, which we first visited during our Road to Success tour last fall after King ranked third for Native student performance among all elementary schools in the state. At King, where 40 percent of students are Native American and nearly 80 percent receive free or reduced lunch, educators and community members were seeing such strong outcomes in the K-5 levels, the district decided to bring best practices down to pre-K.

Through a partnership with the regional Invest Early initiative, greater coordination with the local Head Start and Minnesota Reading Corps, and a renewed focus among school staff, King has made tremendous progress to align preK-3. Below are just a few of the reforms that King—under the vision and leadership of Principal Amy Galatz—has enacted:

  • Data and interventions: Prior to the district’s shift, “data would just sit there,” explained Invest Early Language Interventionist Darla Beaver. Now, pre-K teachers use data to guide literacy and oral language interventions—and they’re seeing results: according to Invest Early data, in fall 2010, 28 percent of Deer River four-year-olds in pre-K were on target in their language skills; 55 percent of kids were far from target. By the end of that academic year—the first year Deer River used interventions in pre-K—64 percent of kids were on target, and only 12 percent were far below. Three years later, in spring 2014, 72 percent of four-year-olds were on target. Using the Response to Intervention model—which has been working well for years in King’s K-5—pre-K teachers now provide both interventions and enrichment to the school’s youngest learners, perhaps most notably with their homegrown “backpack system,” through which they send appropriate activities and instructions home for kids and families. Across King, Amy has led an effort to be “school-wide and systematic” in their use of data, establishing monthly staff meetings to review individual student progress, and three meetings each year to review school-wide benchmark data. Now that they’ve seen the results of this shift, teachers are fully on board. “I look forward to data—I do. It really informs my instruction,” kindergarten teacher Rebecca Collins told us.
  • Community outreach: The school hosts frequent, fun, yet academic family nights for pre-K and K-5 families, sometimes partnering with the local Community Education and Indian Education programs, and almost always providing free dinner. This outreach is designed to make all families feel welcome and comfortable in the school, and to get parents involved in their kids’ education. What’s perhaps most impressive is that King is committed to bringing pre-K families and children into the school, even if the kids don’t attend its pre-K. Whether it’s to eat lunch in the cafeteria, visit the school library or play in the playground, all pre-K kids in Deer River make it to King once a month, to help them get acclimated to the school and ready for the kindergarten they will likely attend.
  • School culture: In the conference room in which we met with King educators, there was a poster on the wall that read, “Being at King is not just a job: it’s being the best teacher that you can be.” This mindset so thoroughly and genuinely permeates the school that, an hour into our visit, tears were flowing—from both King educators and MinnCAN staff. “We set the bar really high for ourselves,” said teacher Deanna Hron, explaining King’s culture of constant evaluation, peer observation, support and improvement. Deanna stressed, too, that King teachers meet their kids where they are, never making excuses, and never blaming high rates of poverty or incarceration in the community. “We know our kids… We have to take them from where they’re at,” she continued.

We can’t wait to tell you more about our moving day at King Elementary, nor can we thank Amy and her team enough for hosting us once again, and for continuing their commitment to serve all Deer River students.

Stay tuned for brief summaries from our other visits and for the full preK-3 report, which we’ll release this fall!


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