Education commissioner Cassellius notes importance of early schooling
BEMIDJI — When Brenda Cassellius, the state’s education commissioner, asked a roomful of 4-year-olds how many legs does a spider have, the answer came very quickly.
Cassellius, in the area this week touring several successful schools, smiled and then proceeded to read a story, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” written and illustrated by Iza Trapani, to 20 youngsters at Bemidji’s Jack and Jill Preschool.
Cassellius, formerly a teacher herself, was at ease with the children, asking them questions and reinforcing one of that day’s lessons, the sign for the letter “S.”
At one point in the story, the itsy bitsy spider is wearing sunglasses and she feigned astonishment, “Do spiders wear sunglasses?”
“No!” the children quickly chimed in.
“That’s silly,” Cassellius agreed.
Of course, you can never predict what children will say. At one point, the spider encounters a chipmunk. A young preschooler kindly interrupted Cassellius at that point to tell his own story of how his dad once got a gun and “blasted the head off” a chipmunk he found in the yard.
Unfazed, Cassellius nodded, “Your dad must be a hunter.”
The Jack and Jill Preschool is a cooperative project between the Bemidji School District, Community Education and Bemidji State University.
The preschool, which now serves 80 students in four classes in Pine Hall on the BSU campus, is the only preschool in Bemidji with a Parent Aware rating of four stars, the highest attainable.
Cassellius and Jim Hess, superintendent of the Bemidji School District, stated their support for early-education initiatives, saying it provides the foundation on which future education can be built.
Cassellius said early schooling can level the playing field between children.
She referenced scholarships now provided by the Minnesota Department of Education to fund preschool for 3- to 5-year-olds in low-income families.
Hess said about 51 percent of the district’s children qualifies for free and reduced lunch. Cassellius noted the state average is 42.5 percent and child poverty continues to rise.
“If we can do things like this and get them ready (for school) … we have a chance to change that trajectory,” she said, from within Jack and Jill Preschool.
“These kids will have a much more opportunity because of their experiences here,” Hess said, speaking generally about all of the 4-year-olds at the preschool.
Politically, legislators seem much more willing to invest in early-childhood education. Not only did they approve funding for all-day every-day kindergarten in the last session, but they also provided some funding for early-ed programming as well.
Hess said the Bemidji district is slated to receive about $74,000 in state funding for its early-childhood programs in the 2014-15 school year.
“People see the cost-benefit analysis and they see that if you invest early in these kids, they really do so much better,” Cassellius said. “Give them a good first step and you don’t have to make it up later.”