Impact Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities

Early Childhood Education in the Wilderness:
Minnesota's Invest Early Initiative


Susan Hoeft is Director of Community Education, Grand Rapids, Minnesota

How do you meet the needs of young children and their families in a rural northern Minnesota county that spans 3,000 square miles with more trees than people? Isolation, poverty and lack of public transportation were some of the major barriers that were considered in the early stages of planning an innovative, collaborative, early childhood system for a rural community.

The history of the Invest Early Initiative dates back to 1997 when the Blandin Foundation, located in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, brought together 240 community members to tackle the issues around quality early childhood programming for all children. Action teams were formed and awareness was raised about the importance of children's development in the early years. After many years of best-practice research, planning, and consultation with national experts, a committed team of early childhood leaders brought to the foundation a funding proposal that involved system change, quality, intensity, and accountability. The Early Childhood Leadership Team was awarded $1 million and the Invest Early Initiative was officially born. The mission of the initiative is to "deliver comprehensive wrap-around services to children and their families, while evaluating the long term impact of the investment." Key partners include KOOTASCA Head Start; Independent School Districts 316, 317, 318, and 319; Itasca County Health and Human Services; and Itasca Community College.

The Invest Early grant is one of several funding streams that blend together to create a menu of quality early childhood and family development services. School Readiness, Head Start, Early Childhood Family Education, Community Education, parent fees, and childcare food reimbursement dollars are some of the main funding streams that combine to support programming. Core services provided in four communities throughout the county include 19 infant, toddler, and preschool classrooms led by licensed teachers; year-around extended-day childcare from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; parent education; and health services. In addition, transportation, family support services, adult basic education, and mental health support are available as needed in all locations. One common application is used to access the programming, with risk factors and income considered to target children most at risk and of the lowest income.

Currently, Invest Early serves 317 children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years, with and without disabilities, and those at-risk. Yet, the unmet need is great, with 175 applications on file for children waiting for Invest Early programming.

So what is the experience like for a child with disabilities participating in Invest Early programming? In preparation for writing this article, I posed that question to a group of infant/toddler teachers and the response was immediately, "The same as it is for any other child." Their response underscores a basic premise of quality early childhood education – inclusion. For Invest Early, inclusion means that all children (and their families) are treated the same regardless of their income, race, or disability.

Most children enter Invest Early programming without a disability and develop at a typical pace. For some children participating in the program, even the enhanced experiences in school and at home are not enough to keep them on track developmentally. In these instances, staff talk with the child's parents and discuss concerns prior to a referral to early childhood special education. If a child qualifies for extra support from the early childhood special education staff, they provide the majority of the programming on-site so the child continues to be part of the classroom they are comfortable in. Physical and occupational therapists, early childhood special education teachers, and speech clinicians move in and out of classrooms supporting children as needed. Invest Early staff learn from the early childhood special education experts and are able to carry out activities specific to each child's learning plan. Families with children that have disabilities participate fully in all of the support options available as part of the program. Parents attend parent education and meet with family support staff in order to access additional services.

Invest Early is the focus of a 30-year longitudinal evaluation study being completed by the Wilder Research Center. This study provides an opportunity to evaluate participating children's performance relative to a comparison group that received no Invest Early Initiative programming. In addition, county-wide impacts such as reduction in K-3 special education costs and out-of-home placements are being measured. Early results are promising and show that the investment in young children produces gains that will provide long-term economic benefit.

As this article is completed we have been notified that our years five and six Blandin Foundation grants have been approved. This is great news for Itasca County area families with young children. Developing a comprehensive, high quality early childhood system in a rural county hasn't been without challenges, but the benefits to young children and their families will last a lifetime.