A child who is loved, educated, mentored, and healed is more likely to face adversities with resilience and contribute to the economic strength of state and country. Dealing statewide in latent fashion — with stress- related healthcare costs, untreated trauma including substance abuse, lack of trained workforce, and limited wages that continue cycles of financial trauma and sometimes criminal behavior — is much more expensive in the long run.
The ongoing coverage in Minnesota Women’s Press of childhood trauma and the opportunity gap reveals racial and economic disparities in funding, criminal justice enforcement, and incarceration. Lack of affordable housing and barriers to lending access also lead to inequitable environments that require community efforts to repair.
Says Kari Denissen Cunnien, executive director of Ignite Afterschool, “Research shows that families in the highest income bracket spend five times more on after- school programs than families in the lowest income bracket, and are much more likely to have children participating in after-school activities. You can see an astounding difference in test scores between young people who regularly participate in after-school programs and those who do not.”
Denissen Cunnien points out that Minnesota has not offered state funding toward after-school programs since 2007. State Rep. Fue Lee has several times introduced a bill to fund a state grant program, but thus far it has not gotten legislative approval.
Javonna Grimes, from Northeast Minneapolis, is one of seven newly graduated high school students nationwide serving as a youth ambassador for the Afterschool Alliance. “I wasn’t really interested in sports and hated school because I felt like no adults were really listening. I started going to Beacons [an after-school program] and it changed me,” Grimes says. She helped launch culture clubs for Somali and Latinx students. “I have definitely found my passion,” says Grimes. “It is working with young kids.”
Prioritizing early childhood development and learning is why policy makers and advocates — from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota to local companies, and urban to rural leaders — are pushing to use this pandemic downtime to reimagine our approach to education.
A statewide collaboration held its fifth annual Little Moments Count conference virtually in December 2020. Governor Tim Walz announced the work of the Children’s Cabinet, which consists of 22 state agencies focused on reducing disparities experienced by children, including those in Greater Minnesota, and making recommendations on how to collectively improve systems.
The keynote speaker was Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), who asked: “When we know that 80 percent of brain development happens in the first 1,000 days of life, why isn’t there more funding available? For every $1 spent on quality early learning, there is a $16 return. Why are 40,000 of our youngest citizens, often from low-income families, denied access to quality early learning because of affordability or access?”
On the January 25 International Day of Education, Global Minnesota hosted a day-long event that included the insights of state, national, and international experts. Samuels talked about how NAZ grew out of the recognition that the way to curb violence is to improve education, starting with early childhood and including after-school programs.
The program has been replicated in a rural town in eastern Kentucky, with similar success. It brings community together to create opportunities.
“It is not only an urban issue. It is about addressing all disparities — knowing solutions need to come from that place where people are feeling isolated, disinvested, behind, and missing social and emotional supports. Every child needs to feel loved, but particularly those steeped in generational poverty. It is about creating a culture of achievement. Schools cannot do it alone.”
One of the Global Minnesota event speakers was Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, head of the Education Transition Team for President Biden. She pointed out an old adage that bureaucracies — the original intent of rules-bound public schools — work best when people are dehumanized. We now know, however, that relationships are the essential ingredient in building brain architecture.
Feeling safe and protected, and the self-perception of ability, strongly influences learning — which in today’s environments of systemic disparities requires meeting academic, emotional, and social needs. Without trauma-informed and healing- focused approaches, the process of learning is undermined. “We need systems of learning that are about potential and development rather than ranking, sorting, and selecting,” Darling-Hammond says.
The “disruption opportunity” of 2020 has presented us with the ability to share information globally about how to make improvements in education for all. “This is how renaissance happens — in cooperation rather than competitiveness.”
Carol Koepp contributed to the reporting on this story. “Learning to Be an Ally: Education” includes extensive coverage about this topic.