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by Mary Otto and Terri Darco in the MinnPost on Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The popular proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is understood well by parents, teachers and just about everyone else who’s ever been around kids. On White Earth Reservation, we take this proverb to heart. That’s why in recent years, we’ve worked closely with colleagues and families to strengthen our proverbial village and ensure that every child is set up for success by the end of third grade, a critical turning point in a student’s academic career.

In aligning our community’s PreK-3rd-grade efforts, we’ve confirmed that everyone — from child-care providers to superintendents, parents to third-grade instructors — has a role to play in helping our youngest learners thrive.

We’ve also learned that we’re ready for the next step: improving — and extending — our proverbial village even more by connecting with other communities that are working to align curriculum, language and strategies across PreK-3rd grade. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village of educators to improve our practice and increase student outcomes.

Thanks to West Central Initiative, which introduced our community to the concept of PreK-3rd grade alignment a few years ago and continues to fund and support our Early Childhood Initiative program, we’ve focused intently on strengthening the PreK-3rd grade continuum. We know this focus will pay off, as research continues to prove that aligned, high-quality opportunities during these years will benefit children for many years to come.

Seeing progress
With West Central Initiative’s help, a Race to the Top Transformation Zone grant from the U.S. Department of Education and support from the Minnesota Department of Education’s PreK-3rd Grade Leadership Institute, we’ve launched White Earth’s PreK-3rd grade leadership team, and already, we’re seeing progress with our children, families and educators.

Our leadership team’s vision is simple: Every child living on White Earth Reservation will have access to a continuity of services and a clear pathway of high-quality education from prenatal through third grade.

Of course, delivering on this vision is more complicated. To ensure high-quality and aligned opportunities for all children, members of our leadership team—which includes representatives from district, charter and private schools, Head Start, child care, Community Education, the White Earth Education Department and more — must work closely not only with each other, but also with educators, families and community members.

But we’re making it work. In just two years, our team has secured representation from every school on the reservation, and a resolution from the White Earth Reservation Tribal Council recognizing the team as advocates for PreK-3rd grade children, with an emphasis on school readiness, high standards and recognition of cultural identity. We’ve developed our very own White Earth Nation Kindergarten Readiness Guide, and also obtained a resolution from the Tribal Council supporting the adoption of this guide in all White Earth programs and schools.

Eager to learn from other communities
But we want to do even more, because we know that we’re still not reaching every child. That’s why we’re so eager to learn what other communities across Minnesota are doing to align PreK-3rd grade opportunities, how they’re engaging stakeholders, improving professional development opportunities for early childhood educators, communicating with families and more.

Starting Strong: Pre-K through 3rd Grade Success Stories from Across Minnesota,” a report published by statewide education advocacy nonprofit MinnCAN, with support from The McKnight Foundation, provided us with many good lessons. From this report, for example, we learned about innovative family engagement strategies in Deer River, and how educators in Winona are easing the transition for pre-K to kindergarten.

This report prompted us to reflect on where we’ve come on White Earth and what our next steps could, or should, be. And it prompted us to realize that our most pressing next step is to learn even more.

That’s why we chose to write this piece — to report out on some of the work we’ve done, and to ask other practitioners to share with us their PreK-3rd-grade ideas, stories, strategies and best practices.

Just as we don’t raise our children alone, we can’t strengthen early learning opportunities without working together — within and across our villages.

Mary Otto is the assistant director of education at White Earth Tribal Nation, and Terri Darco is the Early Childhood Initiative coordinator for White Earth Reservation.


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