Collaborating to close the opportunity gap for kids emerged as the theme of the day at yesterday’s 2014 Children & Youth Issues Briefing in St. Paul.
Plus, nearly 1,000 attendees heard strong calls for ending poverty by boosting the minimum wage – because many of the risks faced by our state’s children and youth arise from the ravages of poverty.
Representatives from host organizations for the event — including the Start Early Funders Coalition for Children & Minnesota’s Future, Greater Twin Cities United Way, The Sheltering Arms Foundation, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and Minnesota Council on Foundations – applauded successes of organizations that recently aligned resources to achieve some significant policy changes on behalf of children.
But more needs to be done, said MCF President Trista Harris, so that all Minnesota kids — from Lake Wobegon to Lake Street — receive cradle to career support so they are “all above average,” as the A Prairie Home Companion saying goes.
Closing the Opportunity Gap
Melvin Carter III, Director of the Minnesota Office of Early Learning, ticked off an impressive list of 2013 legislative accomplishments, including all-day kindergarten, early learning scholarships, expansion of Parent Aware and home visiting, and tiered reimbursement.
But he also admitted the day has not yet come when “race, income and zip code are no longer predictors of children’s outcomes.”
Members of the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet — Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson — spoke of similar concerns.
Their strategic focus is on teen parents and their children, babies and toddlers in poverty, and school children with unaddressed mental health needs.
Echoing each other’s comments (and providing clear evidence that they are breaking down department silos in order to make faster progress), they cited grim statistics about childhood poverty. For instance, more than 40 percent of the state’s first graders qualify for free and reduced lunches (an indicator of poverty).
To turn the tide, Commissioner Ehlinger called for individuals to “be citizens first.” To bring their “passion, expertise and voice” to building a stronger community that will close the opportunity gap for children and youth. Or, as Commissioner Cassellius summed up by invoking the words of former U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone: We all do better when we all do better.
Resources and Calls to Action
During the morning’s segment on emerging program and policy initiatives:
- Barbara Milon of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center outlined MinneMinds goals for 2014. Because 91% of kids are still unable to access quality learning options, MinneMinds will be advocating for $150 million to expand early learning scholarship access to 18,000 three and four-year-olds living at or below 185% of the poverty line .
- Kari Denissen Cunnien of Ignite Afterschool emphasized how out-of-school activities improve school performance, promote good social/emotional skills, and can help decrease the achievement gap.
- Christina Wessel, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, reviewed the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and last year’s legislative health wins. Yet, in 2012, 80,000 children were uninsured.
- Senator Patricia Torres Ray (DFL, 63) lamented the 65% increase in the number of children living in poverty since 2000 and implored everyone to carry a consistent message and act together to get things done. She also called for a minimum wage hike, stating that parents need at least $14.32 per hour to care for their kids.
Youth Offer Final, Most Powerful Words
The morning closed with a youth leadership roundtable moderated by University of Minnesota President Dr. Eric Kaler. Students Essence Blakemore, Coriandre Moore and Malika Musa shared first-person experiences and candid insights about challenges and opportunities for youth in Minnesota. They gave wise advice to youth (be self-directed and confident) and adults. Youth need and want:
- High expectations and support from parents, teachers and mentors
- Peer group support
- Multicultural competence
- Relevant, culturally appropriate curricula and engaging teachers
- Flexibility for different learning styles
- Acceptance of differences
- To be heard by open, respectful adults
As the youth panel wrapped and Sarah Caruso, president and CEO of Greater Twin Cities United Way, closed the briefing, everyone was reminded that progress takes individual and collaborative effort. Together, Minnesotans can maintain momentum for change and ensure that all of the state’s children can succeed in school and life.
- Wendy Wehr, MCF v.p. of communications and information services