At the Invest Early preschool in Grand Rapids, Faith Swanson checks in on her bubbly, 3-year-old daughter, Mary Margaret, who's bundled up in a hallway getting ready to go outside with her classmates.
Preschool opportunities for toddlers like Mary Margaret are rare in rural communities. There might be private schools, but they aren't affordable for low income families like the Swansons. Government funded programs typically don't start until kids are four years old. But Mary Margaret has been coming here year-round since she was an infant.
There are more than 300 kids in the program countywide, and all of them will be tracked for the next 30 years to measure the impact.
Faith Swanson's two older kids came here, too. She said without Invest Early, life for her family would have been very different.
"Probably still living way out in the woods where I was living, with nobody to talk to, very isolated, feeling alone," Swanson said. "We didn't go anywhere, we didn't do anything."
Invest Early focuses on getting these kids ready for kindergarten. But it helps parents, too. Faith Swanson was able to attend parenting classes, she gained confidence through adult education courses and she got help with transportation. Now, she's got a job at the school.
"I've currently went back to college and I received my child development certificate, and I'm glad to say I'm graduating with honors," Swanson said. "And without the program, I wouldn't have been able to go back to school."
In a classroom across the hall, kids ages 4 and 5 get one-on-one time with teachers, and lots of time to play.
They all come from low-income families. Many are identified through county agencies or through the schools. More than half are from families who've experienced some sort of stress, like divorce, unemployment or death. A third of them come from single-parent households.
What's different about Invest Early is that it pools resources from programs that all used to work independently. The partnership includes four school districts, the federal Head Start program and county human services, among others.
The Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation formed the partnership, and committed $1.5 million annually for 10 years to help serve more kids.
Sue Hoeft is on the team that created Invest Early. Hoeft said there's plenty of research showing the best time to reach kids is when they're very young.
"I think it's critical that we reach children as early as possible, that we connect with families, develop a relationship," Hoeft said. "Their brains are absorbing, developing. It's when the most brain development is happening, and yet we invest the least amount of resources as a state."
Studies show that when kids reach kindergarten, there's a huge proficiency gap between low-income kids and their higher income classmates. Invest Early appears to be closing that gap. Last year alone, school districts in Itasca County saw an $86,000 reduction in special education costs for students in kindergarten through third grade as a result of Invest Early.
Mary Kosak is with the Blandin Foundation. Kosak is hoping those early results will convince policymakers that better funding early childhood education is money well spent.
"If we could do it in one place and do it really well and have data that just hits the legislators between the eyes, that they would have to look at it and say, this is absolutely the best investment that we could possibly make," Kosak said. "Why are we not putting our money here?"
Tracking the Invest Early kids over the next three decades is expected to provide even more dramatic results, and more cost savings. Based on the results of similar long term studies, program supporters expect to see fewer high school drop-outs, less juvenile crime, more college graduates, and happier, more productive adults.
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(The Blandin Foundation is also a funding sponsor of Minnesota Public Radio.)