ST. PAUL (AP) — While minorities make up 17 percent of Minnesota’s population, new U.S. Census Bureau estimates show they make up 30 percent of the state’s preschoolers.
Educators are watching the demographic changes closely because Minnesota has one of the widest achievement gaps between students of color and their peers. An influx of federal dollars is helping to propel a major push to narrow the gap, with a particular focus on ensuring preschoolers are ready for kindergarten.
In three Minnesota counties — Ramsey, Mahnomen and Nobles — minority children now make up more than half of the younger-than-5 population. Urban-suburban Ramsey County and heavily agricultural Nobles County both rose above the 50 percent mark for this age group in recent years. Mahnomen, which is predominantly American Indian, has long been majority-minority.
Even though the minority makeup of Minnesota’s under-5 population has increased about 9 percentage points in a decade, the state still lags the nation. Minorities make up just less than half of the U.S. preschool-age population. The Census Bureau reported Thursday that nationwide, the percentage of children younger than age 1 who are minorities has tipped past the 50 percent mark for the first time. In Minnesota, minorities make up about 28 percent of those younger than 1.
“We’ve been increasing our diversity at much the same rate as the U.S. overall, but we began at a much lower level,” state demographer Susan Brower told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The changing demographics add urgency to efforts to address Minnesota’s “school readiness gap,” said Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.
Children of color are much less likely to enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school, Reynolds said. In a recent study of Minnesotans entering kindergarten, 58 percent of white children were found to be ready, compared with 40 percent of black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children.
Minority students now make up 75 percent of the student body in St. Paul’s public schools, the state’s second-largest school district. While the district offers full-day kindergarten, Superintendent Valeria Silva noted that state funding covers only half-day kindergarten, something advocates for low-income and minority students have long criticized.
“Early intervention is the only way we’re going to close the achievement gap,” Silva said. “If we know early education is one of the big, big keys in closing the achievement gap, why is the state not funding all-day kindergarten?”