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Early Start builds community support while boosting kindergarten readiness

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Children gather for circle time at Early Start in Hill City, MN.
Children gather for circle time at Early Start in Hill City, MN.

A childcare crisis is rearing up in most rural Minnesota communities, but in Hill City, town of 608, residents are doubling down on a tested early education program.

Early Start partners with parents, the local school, and the community to provide quality, intense, early childhood programming that strengthens whole families and ensures that all children enter kindergarten ready to learn and that the school is ready to meet the needs of all children.

Now in its ninth year, the community – parents, school board, administration, and residents – are rallying behind the program after seeing its impact.

That wasn’t always the case.

“When we started out, the community wasn’t fully convinced,” said Kathy Carroll, Early Childhood Coordinator for Early Start. “There was some hesitancy. Now, with almost a decade under our belt, the benefits are becoming more visible.”

While national research is increasingly showing how important early childhood education is to school readiness and lifelong success, for residents of Hill City, it was important to see the homegrown impact.

“The gaps between MCA state assessment scores (taken in 3rd grade) of kids who had gone through the Early Start program versus those who didn’t was astonishing,” said Carroll. “In reading, there was a 27 percent difference and in math it was around 35 percent” (see Hill City’s report card).

Beyond test scores, Carroll is seeing broader impact in families.

“Parents are coming to school more than they used to. It gives them an opportunity to deepen their understanding so they can continue the learning at home.”

Extended family make up most of the caregivers in the Hill City community, so sustained learning by whole families is crucial to the success of every child.

“Our community doesn’t have many other options for our youngest kids,” Carroll said. “There is only one childcare provider.  If these kids – the majority qualifying for free and reduced lunch – are going to be prepared, the whole community has to be on board.”

Inclusion of all children is one reason why Carroll believes the program is making a big impact.

boys play on train table

“Kids from different backgrounds and abilities come together at Early Start,” she said. “I think it makes the kids more accepting and patient. We have the same expectations for all of them. If kids need extra help, they get it, but the other kids don’t know.”

Carroll also cites quality staff and community-wide collaboration as key reasons for success.

“When we started, people weren’t really thinking of early childhood education, but now the community sees the program as an essential resource.”


Since its creation in 2008, Blandin Foundation has supported Early Start with five grants totaling $715,000.  For a comprehensive list of grants made to the community of Hill City, visit our map.

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