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Early Childhood Coalitions celebrate 10 years of statewide initiatives

This year the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes Early Childhood Coalitions, along with coalitions across the state, are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Early Childhood Initiative.

Pequot Lakes had one of the first early childhood coalitions, said Julie Despot, community education director for the Pequot Lakes School District. Today, there are 84 coalitions across the state. The initiatives are funded through the McKnight Foundation, a statewide foundation that also monitors the coalitions. Every coalition is a little different, Despot said.

Without the initiative, PR-B Early Childhood Coalition Coordinator Nicki Linsten-Lodge said the coalition might not exist.

“As a state, our coalition would not necessarily have developed without this initiative. For those of us on the coalition, especially those who work in early childhood, I think that 10 years of hard work is paying off,” Linsten-Lodge said.

The coalition was formed to create a collaborative community group working toward improved early childhood education. The group involves educators in Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE), Head Start, kindergarten teachers and other education groups, but it also includes clergy, school administration, parents and other community members and groups, like the Pine River-Backus Family Center.

The PR-B coalition has only been around since 2010, but it has already witnessed a great deal of success.

“Before that Pine River-Backus had some pretty well-established early childhood programs like Head Start and Early Head Start. School Readiness and ECFE collaborated a little before that, but this gave us that edge to pull it all together across programs to help families,” Linsten-Lodge said.

One of the greatest successes of the Pine River-Backus coalition has been the organization of different classes so they work together.

“All of those classes are using the same curriculum and the same assessment. Basically that came from us gathering together and talking about what is the best practice for kids and families and how do we get them ready for kindergarten? How do we figure out if they are ready? I think that is a result of our coordination,” Linsten-Lodge said.

The Pequot Lakes Early Childhood Coalition is focused on literacy, Despot said, though focuses have changed throughout the years.

One of the Pequot Lakes coalition’s efforts has been Little Red Bookshelves. The bookshelves, stocked with donated books, are placed around the area at the BP gas station in Jenkins, Breezy Point City Park (but only in the summertime) and at the Crosslake and Pequot Lakes food shelves. When children see a book they like, they can take it for free.

Despot said more than 900 books were given away in 2013 through the Little Red Bookshelves.

She said one goal of the coalition is to have every child reading at a third-grade level by the time they’re in third grade. Studies show that children who do so have a higher rate of high school graduation and better chances of being successful.

Pequot Lakes’ coalition works with families with newborns all the way to third grade. By collaborating with childcare centers, the coalition holds training sessions to teach parents and educators ways to teach children letter recognition and early steps toward reading. Classes are also held for parents and children together through the district’s ECFE program, which is affiliated with the early childhood initiative.

In the Pine River-Backus district, the coalition has a focus on social emotional development in children.

“Our early childhood coalition just recently is trying to focus more on that social emotional development. It’s amazing because as adults we look back and you can tell people who have great social emotional foundations. Research has shown that the earlier those skills can develop in kids, the more successful they will be as they grow older,” Linsten-Lodge said.

Linsten-Lodge considers early childhood to be an important time for learning many things, including social and emotional development.

“One of the biggest things I have seen is it keeps the importance of early childhood programming and focuses and supports the families in the forefront,” Linsten-Lodge said.

Travis Grimler can be reached at