Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #101. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Dec. 5, 20156; in print Dec. 6

On Nov. 4, I was not a happy camper. The defeat of the St. Cloud school district bond referendum was a shock and a huge disappointment.

That day began with unkind thoughts about voters whose “no” had thwarted an opportunity for a bold and visionary advance. But a movie I had seen just a few days earlier dampened those judgments.

I don’t usually look to Soviet spies for guiding principles. However, in the “based on a true story” film, “Bridge of Spies,” Rudolf Abel, played by the mesmerizing actor Mark Rylance, repeatedly responds to his lawyer’s question, “Aren’t you worried?” with three words that are in fact their own answer: “Would it help?”

On Nov. 4, every time a harsh opinion came to mind I heard, in Rylance’s sardonic voice, “Would it help?” and decided that, of course, it wouldn’t.

I still think the “no” vote was a mistake. The proposal was carefully developed and worth every cent. I hope something like it will be presented next fall, and that enough voters will be persuaded to pass it.

With fruitless grumbling quashed by “Would it help?” I’m pondering ways in which the delay gives time for further reflection, maybe even improvement.

What I want to consider today — let’s enter the fray head-on — is what to do with Clark Field.

I applaud the Times Editorial Board’s straightforward declaration (Nov. 22): “It is time to let go of Clark Field.” The reason they give is the right one: The school board “must move forward with building the Early Childhood Center at Clark Field.”

Why “at Clark Field” I’ll get to shortly. First, though, is what I consider the most important “further reflection” we need to do in this interim period.

Early Childhood Education deserves every bit as much attention as our high schools. Maybe even more.

Research is overwhelmingly conclusive. Birth to age 5 is the most critical stage in the life of learning. Partner for Student Success, the local collaborative initiative to unite the community in the collective pursuit of student success, has as its first strategic goal, “every child is prepared to be a lifelong learner.”

Working with the United Way of Central Minnesota and its Early Learning Early Literacy network, PFSS created an Early Childhood Work Team, including representatives from the St. Cloud, Sartell-St. Stephen, and Sauk Rapids-Rice school districts.

Three key priorities emerged:

  • Educate parents, caregivers and pre-school teachers about their role in early childhood education.
  • Integrate early childhood learning with K-12 education and expand focus to the development of the entire child.
  • Increase access to quality care and educational programs.

The community is poised to act decisively where all the evidence says the most can be done to overcome the achievement and opportunity gaps. A key component for the district is an adequate Early Childhood Learning Center. But let’s not settle for “adequate.”

The early childhood program has been treated as an afterthought for too long. Its home in the Roosevelt Education Center, torched by lightning a year and a half ago, was at least fairly centrally located, but the facility was cramped and hardly flexible at all. The litany of previous sites includes at least 10 buildings, one of them rented space in Sauk Rapids.

As Deb Johansen, who has worked with the early childhood special education program for more than 30 years, writes in a letter to the superintendent and school board, “We were told to make the most of what we had and we did.”

Having tutored Somali students for two years in the Roosevelt basement next to Johansen’s desk, I know this is true.

“Make do” isn’t good enough anymore. It’s time for a state-of-the-art facility for Early Childhood Education — not some “leftover” space others have vacated.

And it should be a facility that stands alone, or perhaps in conjunction with Community Education and Adult Basic Education — in any case, a building designed for direct service education. It would be incongruous to put these departments in a structure that includes, as well, district administration offices and the media center.

Early Childhood Education, housed temporarily in Colts Academy in St. Joseph — inconvenient for most residents of the district — will lose even that home shortly, since Colts Academy has been sold. It would be a disgrace to relocate them again to an interim space.

Clark Field is an ideal location for community access (involving parents in the program is vital). An appropriately sized (and expandable) Early Childhood Education building, along with, perhaps, the other two departments noted above, would still allow for green space. And it would mean a continuing educational presence in the Lake George neighborhood.

I am confident we will eventually have 21st-century high schools. We can, almost immediately, have a 21st-century home for early childhood education. I urge the school board and superintendent to work with the early childhood teachers and staff to create a place to be proud of. Those professionals will make the most of it. And it will help.