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Rural Minnesota county invests early to help kids succeed

An initiative called Invest Early aims to provide comprehensive early childhood education for underserved kids in Itasca County, Minn.

November 1, 2006


Ericca Maas Community Affairs Senior Project Manager
Rural Minnesota county invests early to help kids succeed

Itasca County, located in north central Minnesota's lake-dotted woodlands, is known for recreational opportunities and scenic beauty. Soon, it may also be known for its commitment to ensuring that every young child's education gets off to a great start.

That commitment is expressed through an initiative called Invest Early, which aims to provide comprehensive early childhood education for underserved kids. It's an ambitious goal, since realities in Itasca County—as in many rural communities—make the support and delivery of public services a challenge. The county's 45,000 residents are scattered across an area of nearly 3,000 square miles. There is no public transportation system and the per capita income of $17,717 is significantly lower than Minnesota's overall per capita income of $23,198. 1/

The Invest Early initiative grew out of a partnership formed by a local foundation, four school districts, a county human services agency, a community college and a Head Start program, among others. While designing Invest Early, the various partners faced a central question: In a rural county, is it possible to deliver high-quality early childhood education on a large scale? While it's too soon to give a definitive answer, early indications are promising.

An initiative takes root

Invest Early was established in early 2005, but has its roots in an earlier initiative that developed in the late 1990s. In 1997, the Blandin Foundation (Blandin), which is based in Itasca County's largest town of Grand Rapids, asked community members what investments were most needed and would be most valued. When county residents said they wanted more investments in education, Blandin researched various options and decided to focus on preparing children up to five years old for a successful future.

In 1998, Blandin launched an initiative called "Children First!" to address parent education and support, quality child care, accessible and affordable health care, public awareness of the importance of early childhood care and education, and strengthening families.

Over the next three years, Children First! spurred the creation of several programs to benefit young children in Itasca County, making some important gains. However, field veterans participating in the initiative knew that many children were still missing out on educational opportunities. Low-income parents often had to settle for inferior care and educational arrangements, and many of their children started kindergarten without the skills they needed to succeed. To increase the number of school-ready kindergarteners, something had to change.

Identifying the gaps

In early 2002, Grand Rapids School District Assistant Superintendent Sue Mattson called all of Itasca County's early education organizations together to form a task force. The group included representatives from the area's four school districts, Itasca County's human services and public health agencies, Itasca Community College, Bemidji State University, the YMCA and Head Start. Their goal was to outline existing programs and identify any gaps in services. After an extensive review, the task force determined Itasca County had a solid infrastructure of basic programs, but gaps did exist.

In some cases, certain groups of children were ineligible for needed services. For example, Head Start was serving the largest number of at-risk preschoolers in the county. Head Start, a federal program, offers preschool services to three- and four-year-old children living at or below the poverty line, which is about $20,000 annually for a family of four.2/

Census data indicate Head Start had a high rate of coverage available for preschool children whose families lived at or below the poverty line. However, there was a gap in preschool services for children whose family incomes fell between 100 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level.3/ These families earned too much to qualify for Head Start, but not enough to afford private preschool services. Nearly 160 county children fell into the gap. The county had approximately 44 spaces available to preschool children in this group, representing coverage of only 28 percent.4/

The task force also identified a major gap in services for infants and toddlers. Early Head Start, a state-funded program that focused on low-income teen mothers and their children, provided the only subsidized services for infants and toddlers from poverty-level families. The program had only 16 spaces available, while Census data indicate there were approximately 290 children in this age group whose family incomes fell below the federal poverty threshold.

Moreover, the task force determined that existing programs lacked coordination and resources to deliver the services families needed. The situation left few convenient childcare arrangements available to Itasca County's low-income residents. A lack of coordination often left eligible families unaware of what services were available to them, while a lack of transportation and of quality full-day programming—especially full-day programming that included preschool—made it difficult for families to find workable solutions. The typical state-funded school readiness program only met for several hours two or three times a week and didn't offer transportation. That forced families to double or triple up their arrangements in order to have the full-time coverage they needed, and also forced them to take time away from work or other activities to transport their children to and from various arrangements.

A call for change

One task force member, Mary Kosak, worked as a consultant on Blandin's Children First! initiative. As the task force began to consider ways to address the identified programming gaps, Kosak recognized an opportunity for Blandin to help the effort move forward.

Based on a recommendation from Kosak and other staff members, Blandin decided to fund a local, community-based initiative to provide high-quality early childhood development services in Itasca County, with an initial goal of helping 100 children. In late 2004, the foundation issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the design of the initiative and offered a grant incentive of more than $1 million.

Recent research on early childhood education influenced the design of Blandin's RFP. Specifically, Blandin was interested in work by Rob Grunewald and Art Rolnick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Using evidence from several small-scale pilot programs, Grunewald and Rolnick estimated the return on investments in early childhood education targeted to at-risk kids. They found that these targeted, high-quality, high-intensity early childhood education pilot programs, whose costs they estimated at $9,500 to $12,000 per child per year, returned $7 to the public for every $1 invested.5/ They noted, however, that there were few examples of high-quality early childhood education delivered "at scale," which they defined as providing services to a large percentage of an area's at-risk infants and toddlers.

In its RFP, Blandin called for a "systems change" that would make the early education infrastructure work better for children and families. To ensure the greatest return on investment, the request emphasized three key characteristics: high quality, accountability and high intensity. Further, the effort would need to focus on providing services to at-risk children, where returns are the highest.

Collaboration and coordination

Blandin's grant incentive encouraged task force members to collaborate on a new early childhood education system for Itasca County. The group reformed as the Invest Early Leadership Team and submitted a winning proposal to Blandin, which in turn awarded an initial grant of more than $1.5 million and offered the possibility of renewing the grant for up to ten years. The new initiative, Invest Early, centers on the "systems change" Blandin requested. It also meets Blandin's call for quality, accountability and intensity. In the process, it addresses the programming gaps noted from the field.

Invest Early has created a more effective system of early childhood offerings in Itasca County by supporting collaboration and coordination among existing programs. For example, the initiative has created a model of "blended classrooms," which combines previously available services with supplemental resources and services from Invest Early. In other words, children who are served by a previously available program such as Head Start now have access to Invest Early's entire menu of services, including transportation and "wraparound" daycare, which covers the hours when children are not in preschool sessions.

In another example, Invest Early introduced a common application form for all the early childhood services that participating organizations provide. This simple improvement has enabled educators to better reach underserved children. The common form captures information on family income, which determines eligibility for services, plus a variety of risk factors such as parent education level, age of mother, family stress levels, and the absence of a parent from the family. Eligible children are then ranked for program placement according to these factors.

To ensure quality, Invest Early employs a well-educated, caring staff who implement a developmentally appropriate curriculum. The program attracts qualified teachers by providing competitive salary and benefits packages, and its leadership team works closely on training with Itasca Community College and neighboring Bemidji State University. The Invest Early curriculum is backed by research and focuses on children's social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth.

Invest Early has a two-part accountability plan in place. First, Blandin is working with Wilder Research to formally evaluate the program and determine whether or not investing early results in later returns. Wilder will work with Invest Early to collect the baseline and ongoing data needed to conduct a longitudinal study. Wilder is also tracking parent growth and development in the areas of education and employment. Second, in addition to the formal program evaluation, Invest Early has developed its own quality assurance team.

Invest Early is intensive in terms of hours per day, days per week and services offered. Services are available year-round, five days a week, twelve hours a day. Invest Early provides childcare, early childhood education, parent education and health services to children aged six weeks to five years. It also provides a comprehensive menu of flexible add-on services to respond to the needs of individual families, such as family development, home visits, adult basic education, mental health support and transportation.

Quality and scale

Invest Early has begun to help answer the key question of whether a rural community can provide high-quality early childhood education on a large scale. While results of the longitudinal study by Wilder Research are years away, Invest Early has adopted features that are consistent with successful model programs. These features include well-educated, dedicated instructors and a comprehensive, research-backed curriculum. The initiative also has an accountability plan in place to monitor quality and measure ongoing results.

Furthermore, Invest Early has helped boost the total number of subsidized preschool and infant/toddler spaces available to county children by 57 percent. Out of the estimated 900 at-risk preschool children in Itasca County, 369 are currently receiving subsidized preschool or infant/toddler services. Nearly 70 new preschool spaces are available for children whose families have incomes of up to 185 percent of the poverty line, more than doubling the number available for this income level. The initiative also boosted the enrollment percentage of at-risk infants and toddlers in the county from about 5 percent to 25 percent.

Unforeseen benefits

By tying its grant to system changes centered on interorganizational coordination and collaboration, Blandin leveraged its investment. Without increasing its initial financial commitment to support 100 children, the foundation is currently providing some combination of services to 266 children, 134 of whom were not receiving services previously. Blandin created these new spaces at a cost of approximately $8,000 to $11,000 per child, depending on what mix of services is taken into account—a dollar range that is on a par with what experts expect high-quality early education services cost. And due to the more efficient application process, all of the County's available early education and development spaces are filled by the children and families most in need.

The initiative has led to some unforeseen, yet welcome, developments. For example, more low-income parents are taking advantage of the family services available to them through Invest Early, such as adult basic education and childhood mental health services. Also, thanks to the comparatively high salaries it offers, Invest Early has created a strong job market for early educators across the county. In fact, Invest Early's salary level has led to more Head Start teachers working on four-year degrees than ever before. As a result, children countywide are reaping the benefits of having better-trained teachers.

One additional development may help strengthen the bonds of the whole community. Maureen Rosato, the director of Head Start in Itasca County, notes that the blended classrooms and new application procedures have led to more interaction among families from different income levels. The lowest-income children are no longer segregated in Head Start programs; they and their parents are interacting with children and families at higher income levels and are building relationships with more of the children who will be their kindergarten classmates. The new interaction could bring benefits in the form of friendships and cooperation for years to come.

1/ U.S. Census Bureau, 2003.

2/ All poverty figures are based on 2006 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines.

3/ The 185 percent measure is a commonly used designation in matters of education and family income. It marks the income limit below which families qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

4/ Author's calculations using Census 2000 Public Use Microdata Samples.

5/ Rob Grunewald and Art Rolnick, "Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return," fedgazette, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, March 2003; and A Proposal for Achieving High Returns on Early Childhood Development, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, March 2006.

Scholarships vs. grants: Two funding models for early childhood education

As our article notes, research conducted by Rob Grunewald and Art Rolnick of the Minneapolis Fed influenced the creation of Invest Early. The initiative's purpose, design and name all reflect Grunewald and Rolnick's finding that targeted investments in early childhood education bring a high rate of return.

However, the method the Blandin Foundation uses to fund Invest Early is a departure from what Grunewald and Rolnick advocate. Like Invest Early's creators, Grunewald and Rolnick propose using funds as an incentive for the creation of high-quality early childhood programs for at-risk children. But instead of granting funds directly to education providers, the Fed researchers propose giving scholarships to parents, who would then choose a program for their child from a list of pre-approved, high-quality providers. */

Grunewald and Rolnick argue that their approach offers an effective way to engage parents while cutting down on the potentially high overhead expenses that often accompany large systems. In addition to these benefits, the scholarship model has the potential to encourage a wide variety of programs to compete for scholarship dollars.

Nevertheless, the scholarship model does not preclude the creation of a collaborative program like Invest Early, especially in small communities where there are only a few early childhood education providers. In those cases, pooling resources may be the best solution. However, Grunewald and Rolnick argue that scholarships would be likely to spur a diverse mix of high-quality publicly and privately funded providers in more densely populated areas.

*Rob Grunewald and Art Rolnick, A Proposal for Achieving High Returns on Early Childhood Development, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, March 2006.


Blandin Foundation basics

The Blandin Foundation, which funds Itasca County's Invest Early program, was established in 1941 by Charles K. Blandin, a community-minded entrepreneur who founded and built the Blandin Paper Company. The foundation's mission is to strengthen rural Minnesota communities through grants, public policy and leadership development.

For more information on the foundation, visit