More Minnesota youngsters ready for kindergarten

Nearly 73 percent of Minnesota children were prepared to start kindergarten in the fall of 2012, or about 13 percent more than in 2010, according to a new report from the Minnesota Department of Education.

Early childhood advocates say the report seems to show the state's investments in early childhood education are paying off. But they say even more should be done.

To be prepared for kindergarten, children need to know more than their ABCs and how to count to 10. Charlene Briner, chief of staff for the Minnesota Department of Education, said that's why the report also measures physical and emotional markers. Among them:

"Can you follow directions? Can you stay on task? Can you control your body? Do you have a vocabulary that has a certain number of words?"

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Students who combine that ability with basic reading, writing and math skills are much more likely to be on track academically by third grade, the state's goal, Briner said.

The report also cites a narrowing in the readiness gap between white students and students of color and between low income students and their wealthier counterparts.

But gaps do remain. For example, 78 percent of white children are considered ready for kindergarten, about 4 percentage points higher than black students and 16 points higher than Native American and Hispanic students.

Students of color and poor students are more likely to be ready for kindergarten when they have access to quality early childhood education and when their mothers have access to pre-natal care, said Richard Chase, a senior research manager at the Wilder Foundation.

"We have to start thinking about school readiness way before age 2," he said. "So the kids can actually have the development they need to take advantage of those early learning scholarships when they start preschool."

In the legislative last session, Minnesota lawmakers approved up to $45 million in preschool scholarships for low-income children over the next two years.

The state's efforts to place more students, especially low-income children, into quality pre-school education in recent years is starting to pay off, said Art Rolnick, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

"These results are partly do these outreach programs to improve early ed for our most vulnerable kids, and make sure we get our vulnerable kids access to these programs," said Rolnick, former director of research at the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis.

But Rolnick said the state could do even more. To cover all of the children in need, lawmakers need to triple the $45 million they put into preschool scholarships.