Expert: Early childhood learning pays off

FAIRMONT – Money invested in early childhood education has a double-digit return on investment.

That’s the message Art Rolnick brought to town Wednesday when he spoke to Fairmont Area Schools staff.

Rolnick grew up in Detroit and earned degrees in math and economics from Wayne State University. He moved to Minnesota and worked for the Federal Reserve. Now semi-retired, he is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

He has become a powerful advocate for early childhood learning and the resulting economic benefits of early, high-quality education and involved parents. These factors increase the drive for future learning while reducing crime and, therefore, prison costs and welfare needs.

Two of his staunchest supporters in Fairmont are Police Chief Greg Brolsma and Superintendent Joe Brown.

“Schools can do phenomenal things, but we need to give them the healthiest, strongest families,” Brolsma said.

Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, Minnesota will, for the first time, fund all-day kindergarten, said Brown, adding that Iowa has funded the all-day program for decades.

“You have to make the economic argument to get legislative support,” Brown said.

“When you’ve got leaders like this, that’s how you make a difference,” said Rolnick, indicating Brolsma and Brown. “It’s so critical that your community leaders understand this issue because kids don’t vote.”

Fairmont Area Schools has about 100 students in its early childhood program for ages 3 and 4, and involves 42 families. The program is open to all, and scholarships are available.

Rolnick said an $18 million grant financed a Chicago program to align high-quality early education with high-quality kindergarten through third grade classes.

“If they’re ready to read by third grade, they’re ready to learn,” he said.

“It’s all about the parents. It makes it much easier if you’ve got engaged parents,” said Rolnick, recommending utilization of community parenting programs. “It’s very hard to run a school system without engaged parents.

“Not every kid has to go to college, but every kid has to learn how to learn. It’s critical that we get kids on that path.”

Rolnick stresses positive interaction between parent and child, such as reading or exploring. He defines neglect as “putting the baby in front of the TV” or being obsessed with your cell phone.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “The brain is 90 percent developed by age 5 so interact positively.”