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2019 Legislative Session: Minnesota Should Double Down on Early Education Now

2019 Legislative Session: Minnesota Should Double Down on Early Education Now 1250 625 Ken Story

By Art Rolnick, Ph.D., in partnership with Way to Grow.

{Directed at low-income kids, at as early an age as possible, this could help close achievement gaps and give a huge return on investment.}

When it comes to education and economic development, what policy is best for Minnesota’s future?

If we focus on that question, it’s clear what we must do. Both economic and neuroscience research show that there may be no better return-on-investment for taxpayers than quality early education programs. In 2003, Rob Grunewald and I at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis came to this conclusion, as has James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago.

Our research found up to a $16 return for every $1 invested to help low-income children access high-quality early learning programs. That’s because low-income children who are prepared for kindergarten are less likely to generate lifelong taxpayer bills related to things like special education, social services, health care, unemployment, law enforcement and prisons. The economic research is clear — investing a little now saves taxpayers a lot later.

And neuroscience research shows that the highest return-on-investment (ROI) is when early education begins at the beginning. Achievement gaps open as early age 1; they do not wait until age 4. Indeed, we now know that much critical brain development happens by age 3. Conclusion: We must invest early in life.

How is Minnesota doing? Minnesota currently has some of the worst achievement gaps in the nation. In the 16 years since our research was published in 2003, about 302,000 Minnesota children were born into families with incomes low enough to be eligible for Early Learning Scholarships. We didn’t invest in scholarships for the overwhelming majority of those kids. We didn’t get that ROI. We didn’t prevent and close those achievement gaps early in life.

Now, more than two-thirds of those kids are already past kindergarten, and some are as old as 15. We missed that opportunity. And not only did we fail these kids, we failed our taxpayers, our communities and our economy.

This year, estimates are that another 35,000 low-income Minnesota children under age 5 won’t be able to access high-quality early learning programs without help. Given what we know about how a child’s brain develops during the earliest years, given that we have an effective program that can be readily scaled, how can we not fund more scholarships?

So now — not 16 years from now, not even one year from now — is the time to at least double down on our investment. Our current biennial budget for scholarships is $140 million. With a $1.5 billion state budget surplus, we can readily invest $140 million more. Now is the time to make closing the achievement gaps a Minnesota priority.

With such an investment, we could provide flexible scholarships to change the life trajectories of an additional 7,200 left-behind children each year. While it would only help about one child in need out of every five, it would bring meaningful progress.

If Minnesota continues to turn a blind eye to our opportunity gaps and achievement gaps, our children, communities and economy will suffer, and that ultimately means all Minnesotans will suffer. We desperately need well-educated Minnesotans in order to compete in the global economy and maintain our strong communities. The time to build for that future is now.

This commentary is a revised and updated version of a commentary that appeared in the Star Tribune on April 13, 2018

Art Rolnick is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs and former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Celebrating our Graduates!

Celebrating our Graduates! 960 640 Ken Story

It was a day full of pride and joy on July 15th as Way to Grow held our 2018 Early Learning and Third Grade Graduation at Urban Ventures in South Minneapolis.

30 staff members, 12 community volunteers, and hundreds of family members celebrated our graduates through a late-afternoon program that involved an activity and social hour, the graduation ceremony itself, and refreshments to close out the day. In all, we had 98 Early Learner Graduates and 57 Great by Eight (3rd Grade Graduates).

At Way to Grow, we often hear that “It takes a village,” so we would like to take this opportunity to thank ours. Thank you to all the Way to Grow parents and guardians for your work and commitment to your child’s education.  To our Way to Grow Family Educators and staff, thank you for all your hard work, enthusiasm, and dedication.  Finally, thank you to all our volunteers, the Way to Grow Board of Directors, and our funders for your continued support.  Finally, a special thank you to Books to Grow and Minneapolis City of Lakes Rotary Club for providing books to our graduates.

You can find photos from the graduation event by following the links below:

2018 Graduation

2018 Graduation – Family Photo Booth 

2018 Graduation – Graduate Photo Booth

My Voice Matters: Minneapolis Board of Education

My Voice Matters: Minneapolis Board of Education 2560 1920 Ken Story

Recent research shows that boards of education have a significant impact on student achievement in their districts and that across the nation there is a low percentage of parents – especially  in vulnerable communities – that are not engaged with their local boards of education.

Through Way to Grow’s “My Voice Matters” initiative, this past week our parents learned not only the ins and outs of the Minneapolis Board of Education but also who each director was, the history of education in Minneapolis, and how each of them could be proactive in local education policy-making.

Local boards of education (also known as school boards, school committees, school directors, or trustees) are elected—or occasionally appointed—to be leaders and champions for public education in their communities and states.

The most important responsibility of the board of education is to work with their communities to improve student achievement in their local public schools. Boards of education derive their power and authority from the state. In compliance with state and federal laws, school boards establish policies and regulations by which their local schools are governed.

Last Friday, Way to Grow had 13 parents attend a training that was led by a member of the board, Director Jenny Arneson.  While Director Arneson did encourage involvement, she did explain the lines and differences between the board and the schools. She explained that if a parent actually has a direct issue with their child’s education, they actually should call their child’s school and that the board of education is more of a “bigger picture and governance entity.”

Putting what they learned into action, 12 Way to Grow parents along with 5 staff members attended the Minneapolis Board of Education meeting last night where various issues were discussed and voted on. “It is not only important for us to teach them every aspect when it comes to local education and policy-making, but also be there with them in case they have any questions,” said Way to Grow Program Director Megan McLaughlin. “It is really up to them to take it from there to advocate for their child’s education as a concerned parent/private citizen.”

My Voice Matters is a parent engagement and advocacy initiative with the goal of involving parents in advocacy and empowering them to make the right choices for their children. Programming includes Parent Voices listening sessions, parent trainings, and advocacy events throughout the year.

Eating Well to Learn Well

Eating Well to Learn Well 600 400 Ken Story

While Way to Grow has spent the past month celebrating National Nutrition Month, our commitment to weaving education, wellness, and nutrition throughout all our programming continues every day of the year through our Growing Strong program.

Research demonstrates strategies that target young children are more effective when parents are involved in learning about and preparing healthy foods.  Parents who lack knowledge about healthy foods and nutrition are less likely to make healthy food choices for their family.

According to Wilder Research’s study on Nutrition and Students’ Academic Performance, “Minnesota youth face a number of food-related concerns, such as poor nutrition, obesity, and hunger.”  Additional studies show that nutritional deficiencies early in life can negatively affect overall health, cognitive development, concentration, and academic performance.

Way to Grow’s Growing Strong childhood nutrition program serves low-income, at-risk Minneapolis families through a holistic model of home visiting, center-based preschools, and community-based classes and events.

We are working to foster changes in nutrition behavior among our families and to close the gap of access to healthy foods among communities of color.  Barriers to good nutrition include lack of knowledge about healthy foods, lack of access to healthy foods, and lack of skills in preparing healthy food.  To reduce these barriers, our Growing Strong program:

  • Increases direct access to healthy foods
  • Increases knowledge about healthy eating and food preparation
  • Changes nutrition behavior.

Through our programs and services, our ultimate goal is to systematically change nutrition behavior in our children’s homes, our preschools, and in the community at large.

Using an evidence-based approach, Growing Strong improves childhood nutrition by increasing parents’ and children’s nutrition knowledge and ensuring direct access to healthy food to support long-term nutrition behavior changes.  Additionally, the Growing Strong program is implemented through a family-centered, multi-generational approach over multiple years that allows us to weave nutrition education throughout all we do for our families and children.

During our home visits, family educators teach families about nutrition using such resources as USDA’s My Plate, Food Labels-Nutrition Facts, 10 Tips to A Great Plate, Daily Food Plans for Adults and Toddlers, and other educational materials.

Way to Grow’s Preschool Pals and P.A.L.S. children engage in hands-on nutrition games and activities and have the opportunity to hear from guest speakers.  The snacks and meals we provide meet nutrition requirements and help supplement our curriculum, as well as the nutrition education their parents receive.   In addition, Way to Grow partners with the University of Minnesota Extension to offer our Cooking Matters classes to families.  (Learn more about this exciting initiative in a previous blog post.)

“Healthy choices and habits make for a healthy mind and overall better quality of life,” explains Megan McLaughlin, Way to Grow Program Director. “Starting with the parents allows us to build a strong foundation and instill values about nutrition that they can easily apply at home and in their everyday lives.”

Healthy kids who eat well are ready to learn—and we are working each and every day to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to succeed in school and life!




A Mom’s Transformation from Client to Champion: Meet Deborah

A Mom’s Transformation from Client to Champion: Meet Deborah 427 336 Ken Story

Our newest employee at Way to Grow, Ken, recently attended a number of education events at the State Capitol. Still learning all of his new coworkers, he assumed Deborah was on staff and just doing her job as she participated like a veteran advocate: Listening to speakers, talking to legislators, engaging with other attendees—she was doing it all. It was not until later that Ken learned that this amazing champion was not one of his colleagues but was instead one of our clients. Deborah may not work at Way to Grow, but she has become one of our most active parents and strongest voices for parent advocacy.

Referred to us by Healthy Families, Deborah brought her then five-year-old daughter Patty to Way to Grow in early 2015. Deborah herself had struggled in school and was a victim of bullying as a child. Looking back, she realizes this deeply affected her confidence. As a mother, she was adamant about a creating a better life for her daughter and knew she needed resources to help make that happen, especially considering Patty’s specific needs.

Patty has a genetic abnormality that affects her ability to communicate and concentrate. “She struggles with learning, but she has such a high level of empathy,” said Collette, their Way to Grow Family Educator. Determined to support her daughter in every possible way, Deborah constantly researched and contacted resources to help Patty progress and grow. “I could not sit down and not do anything,” she explained.

After being enrolled in Way to Grow for two years, the family was assigned to Collette, and there was an instant connection. Both she and Deborah feel they come from similar experiences, making the connection between the three of them so strong. After three years of working with the family, Deborah now refers to Collette as a “godsend” because she has been such a great advocate for her and Patty. When asked to explain her definition of an advocate, Deborah notes, “An advocate is someone that has your back and stands with you. They make things happen for you if you can’t, and they also push you when you need to do things for yourself.”

Collette has worked with Deborah and Patty in their home during regular home visits, and the two have seen exponential growth in Patty. Moved by her daughter’s progress and what it has done for her family, Deborah realized she could help other children and families just like hers. That is why she decided to become an advocate  not only her own child but for other vulnerable children as well.

In 2017, through funds from MN Comeback, Way to Grow developed My Voice Matters, a parent engagement and advocacy initiative that involves parents in advocacy and empowers them to make the right choices for their children. This past fall, Way to Grow hosted a Parent Champion Workshop Series that included four listening sessions and trainings entitled “Advocacy 101” and “Ready for Elementary.” Along with over 100 other parents, Deborah attended each session, learning how to be an advocate in Patty’s schools, her community, and in public policy.

Empowered by her relationship with Collette and her growing advocacy skills, Deborah found herself becoming a stronger parent champion for her daughter. “We were in an individual planning meeting and I felt like the interviewers were ignoring me. I felt left out and neglected until I went back to what I had learned and inserted myself into the conversation, telling them that I wanted her tested from head to toe.” Deborah had become a true Parent Champion.

It wasn’t long until she got involved at the policy level. In February, Deborah attended the 2018 Children and Youth Issues Briefing in St. Paul. “I felt scared going in; I had to text a friend,” she said, reflecting on the morning. “It is so easy to shut down when in a place like that. I’ve been there, but I know we need more parents involved; I told myself ‘We need more of this.’”

A few short weeks later, she joined the Way to Grow contingency at the 2nd Annual Voices and Choices for Children Day on the Hill at the Minnesota State Capitol. Not missing a beat, she immediately started meeting people, sharing her stories and experiences, and became a part of conversations. “I knew there were some important people in that room,” Deborah explained.

When asked what she has noticed about herself throughout this process, Deborah choked up and said she has seen a lot of change in herself. Reminded of her definition of an advocate, she was asked if she considered herself to be one. Deborah looked up and simply replied, “I never thought about it like that. Yes, I guess I am. I have learned to stand up for the things that Patty and I need.”

Deborah’s hopes for the future are that people with influence and ability in education will listen to parents and do what is best for children. She told us that she will continue to attend events and call and e-mail her legislators when it comes to important education matters and initiatives. She is already planning to attend the Advocacy for Children Day on March 29th at the Capitol.

For any other parent thinking about getting involved, Deborah had some advice: “You have to do it. Things will not happen for your child, and they will fall through the cracks. I want others to know there is help. There are people that will help, but you have to show up and be consistent. You can do it for your baby.” That statement got little Patty in the conversation with an enthusiastic, “Yeah, you can do it!”

Deborah is an amazing addition to our parent champions at Way to Grow and is part of a growing community of engaged families. “It is good to know I am not the only one. I am stronger because I have Way to Grow in my corner,” she explains.

Deborah, all of us at Way to Grow are stronger because we have parents like you in our corner.

A Healthy Mind Needs Fuel – National Nutrition Month!

A Healthy Mind Needs Fuel – National Nutrition Month! 2560 1920 Ken Story

Way to Grow is happy to celebrate National Nutrition Month through our Cooking Matters classes for our children and parents! National Nutrition Month is an annual nutrition education and awareness campaign held in March by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

In a partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension Services, Way to Grow offers Cooking Matters, a six-week cooking and nutrition course for parents and their children. Skills for healthy cooking, eating, and shopping are presented throughout the sessions. This course teaches families how to use healthy recipes and plan meals on a tight budget. A professional chef demonstrates how to prepare healthy meals, and participants are given the opportunity to cook their own healthy meal after each demonstration. In addition, participants take home the recipes and groceries to prepare the meal on their own at home.

There is no singular diet that is right for everyone, so it is important to establish a healthful eating plan specific to your lifestyle and budget. Positive eating habits and a nutritious diet offer many physical and mental health benefits, including:

  • Disease prevention: Healthy eating lowers the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome by reducing blood fats and helping your blood flow smoothly. The more healthy foods you eat, the better your “good” cholesterol levels will be, helping prevent disease.
  • Better sleep: Nutrients found in many healthy foods promote quality sleeping habits. Certain foods can calm your nervous system and trigger sleep-inducing hormonal response, helping you rest better.
  • Improved brain function: Consuming a variety of nutritious foods boosts memory, concentration and overall brain function.
  • More energy: Eating certain types of food in particular can help prevent fatigue. Vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from nutrient-rich foods are important for increasing and maintaining your energy throughout the day.
  • Strong immune system: You can boost your immune system and help reduce the chances of catching the common cold or flu with balanced diet that includes such healthy foods as spinach, broccoli, and yogurt.
  • Improved mental health: Food choices have a direct effect on mood and attitude, and research has found that a healthy and balanced eating plan is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. When your diet is full of healthy nutrients, you significantly lower the risk of depression and help support mental and emotional well-being.


To find more information on National Nutrition Month, as well as tips on healthy eating, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website at www.eatright.org.

My Voice Matters: Voices and Choices for Children

My Voice Matters: Voices and Choices for Children 2560 1707 Ken Story

A cavalcade of parents and children clad in yellow descended on the Minnesota State Capitol last Monday – otherwise known as a Way to Grow contingency!

Way to Grow joined elected officials, Think Small, the Children’s Defense Fund, the Voices and Choices Coalition, and advocates for Minnesota children at the 2nd Annual Voices and Choices for Children Day on the Hill.

The topic of conversation for the speakers and attendees was the Community Solutions Fund for Healthy Child Development that has been introduced to both the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives. The fund aims to shape equitable practices and policies that will support better outcomes for American Indian children and children of color from the prenatal stage to eight years old.

The fund, in the form of grants, will be administered by the Minnesota Department of Health in consultation with members of the Community Solutions Advisory Council, which will consist of early childhood professionals, advocates, and parents of American Indian children and children of color from across the state.

Eligible grantees will be organizations that support healthy child development and organizations that work with communities of color and American Indian communities. Grants will be used to fund community-based solutions for issues that are identified by and for the affected communities they serve.

A resounding message from the elected officials that spoke was, “We work for you, the people. Contact us, let us know what you want and need us to do.”

“We need our parents to be part of the public policy process, especially when bills and laws are being passed that will impact them and their children,” said Megan McLaughlin, Way to Grow Program Director. “Getting parents involved through the “My Voice Matters” initiative increases their self-confidence at all levels of advocacy and motivates them to know how important their voices are in the public policy process.”

Both bills have been referred to each chamber’s respective human services committees. You can track each bill’s status by visiting the following links:

Minnesota House of Representatives

Minnesota Senate

So, What Exactly is an IGDI?

So, What Exactly is an IGDI? 2560 1707 Susan Cossette

IGDI [ig – dee]


IGDIs, or Individual Growth and Development Indicators, are frequently discussed here at Way to Grow.

“The IGDIs are next week.”

“Don’t eat those snacks in the fridge; they’re for the IGDIs!”

“When do the IGDI results come in?”

More than an third of America’s young children lack the skills crucial to school success.  This means that every year, over a million children enter kindergarten behind on Day 1 in literacy and numeracy development.  Meanwhile, research shows that these early years of education can be directly linked to odds of long-term success.

This is where the IDGIs come in, and why we use them in our work at Way to Grow.

Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) are brief, easy-to-use measures of early language, literacy and numeracy designed for use with preschool children (ages three to five). Part of a long line of research at the University of Minnesota (and elsewhere), IGDIs focus on general outcome measures of educational and developmental growth. Teachers, parents, and others can use these measures to monitor children’s progress in important areas, identify children who need additional support or interventions, and track the effects of these interventions over time.

All of the children enrolled in Way to Grow’s programming who will be entering kindergarten next year take the IGDI assessments three times a year:  at the start of the school year, mid-way through, and then right before they begin kindergarten.

“After the IGDIs scores come in, we are able to engage with families individually and share areas where parents can work with their children to ensure they will be fully prepared for kindergarten,” explains Ashley Saupp, Way to Grow’s Education Manager.

This approach pays off:  Last year, 87% of Way to Grow’s children were deemed ready for kindergarten!

Shamsa’s 20 Years and Counting

Shamsa’s 20 Years and Counting 2560 1707 Maren Nelson

From a corner of the Way to Grow office, boisterous laughter rises above the quiet workday chatter. No one has to ask—everyone knows that voice, and smiles spread around the office. Shamsa Idle, a Way to Grow Family Educator, throws her hands in the air, smiling as she recalls a story from her most recent home visit to a new family. Her stories are plentiful, her joy is infectious, and after two decades of service to her families, she has established herself as a rock in her Minneapolis community.

Shamsa’s journey to Way to Grow started 10 years before she set foot in the United States. It was 1987, and she had just completed nursing school in Mogadishu, Somalia. Shamsa knew she wanted to commit herself to changing the lives of families, so she took a job at the Mother and Child Health Center operated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Her work took her out of Mogadishu and into the surrounding countryside, where she led a team into rural villages to educate families and provide basic services. She and her team taught nutrition, provided education on healthy practices for safe food and water, and distributed immunizations to some of the most isolated parents and children in Somalia.

Knowing the immense value of her work, the Somali government awarded Shamsa a competitive scholarship from the WHO and the World Food Program (WFP) from the United Nations to go to Italy for one and a half years and train in prenatal and infant nutrition. One of 10 people selected from Somalia, she felt blessed to be given the opportunity to learn and return with even more skills to benefit the rural families in her community.

Yet all was not well in her home country, as conflicts continued to escalate and it was apparent that war was on the horizon. Of the 10 students who studied in Italy, only three decided to return to Somalia at the conclusion of their program. Despite growing unrest, Shamsa chose to return home. “I had to pay back my country,” she explained. “I had been given so much and did not want to be selfish.”

In 1991, eight months after her return to her position at the Mother and Child Health Center in Mogadishu, war broke out in Somalia. “Everyone ran outside of the country to save their lives, so my whole family went to Nairobi, Kenya.” Shamsa had always planned to return home once it was safe, but year after year the conflict dragged on and the humanitarian crisis only worsened. For three years, she lived with her family in a refugee camp in Nairobi, waiting to either return home or obtain a visa to enter the United States.

Shamsa had never dreamed of leaving her country, her work, or her family, but in 1996 she arrived alone in the United States. With her papers finalized, Shamsa applied to bring her family over and moved to the Twin Cities to begin building a new life. “My friend was in Minnesota and welcomed me. This place allows people from all over the world, that speak different languages, to come together.” With one of the largest Somali communities outside of Somalia, it felt a little more like home. “I went to the Somali community here, and they connected me with someone to help me find a job.” That job ended up being the only one she would ever need.

In 1997, Way to Grow was growing and looking for people who wanted to work with families and children, and Shamsa was a perfect fit. Just one year after arriving in the United States, she found herself meeting new staff, learning a new city, and connecting with families from all around the world as a new Family Educator. At the time, Way to Grow was just building its directory of resources, and as a new member of the team, Shamsa found herself driving around a brand new city, going block by block to inventory resources in South Minneapolis. Although challenging work, Family Educators like Shamsa truly helped lay the groundwork for Way to Grow as it is today through their persistence and dedication to building a stronger community. As an added benefit, Shamsa jokes that she now knows the streets so well that people rely on her like a GPS: “When we have taxis bringing families to events, they are calling me asking me how to get there!”

When asked why she has stayed at Way to Grow for so long, Shamsa replies, “I am working with families. I am working with children, and that was my passion back home. I want to help families to succeed in their lives and their children to get ready for their education. I want to make change in our community and help those people who get here but don’t know the systems or culture.” It seems that no matter how far she travels and no matter the hardships she has overcome, helping new families will always come first for Shamsa. “When a child is waiting for you at the home, smiling. When you see a child reading. You can see what we did. That is exciting.”

A pillar in both the Way to Grow office and our Minneapolis community, Shamsa has touched the lives of thousands of people over the past 20 years and shows no signs of slowing down. She is the first to declare that she will never give up on a family and will fight for her families and their children day in and day out. Her inspiring dedication has forged long-lasting relationships, grounded the Somali community, and helped build a stronger Way to Grow. “I am everywhere!” she proclaims with a laugh.

Shamsa, we are so lucky for it!



Paying it Forward

Paying it Forward 150 150 Ivy Marsnik

Way to Grow is deeply thankful for the financial support we receive. In fact, gifts allow us to work with the most isolated families in Minneapolis, and ensure that children are born healthy, stay healthy, and are prepared for school. Last year, we served 2,432 children and parents through 11,563 home visits. With your continued support, we can reach even more families whose futures will be brighter because of your generosity.

Want to join our family of supporters? It’s easy! You can choose from several ways to give that will fuel our mission.

Go online: One of the quickest ways to give in a digital world is to use our website. With a few keystrokes, you can choose to make a one-time gift, or set in motion a recurring gift that happens automatically each month on the day you choose. Either way, we are grateful for your support which helps us serve families and children.

Mail us a check: This classic method works for many! Simply send your gift to Way to Grow, 125 West Broadway, Suite 110, Minneapolis, MN 55411. You’ll put a smile on our faces when the mail arrives.

Shares of stock: If you own shares of stock that have grown in value – and that you’ve held for one year or longer – it may be tax-wise to donate them directly to Way to Grow, rather than sending a check. Here’s why. First, you’ll avoid paying capital gains tax on the shares’ growth, and so will Way to Grow, which receives 100% of the proceeds tax-free as a charitable organization. Second, you’ll enjoy a tax deduction for the full fair market value of the shares, even if they cost you a lot less. Third, you can make a meaningful gift without tapping out your checkbook. For details, call us at (612) 874-4740.

IRA Charitable Rollover: This way of giving arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, allowing Americans to tap their retirement savings to help others. If you are age 70-1/2 or older (an age when Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from IRAs must begin), you can re-direct your RMD to Way to Grow directly from your IRA. This bypasses your federal tax return, so it is not counted as income, nor deducted as a gift. Even better, you are not limited to sharing just your RMD; instead, individuals are allowed to give up to $100,000 each year out of their IRA to qualified charities. Way to Grow would be delighted to receive your IRA Rollover Gift! Check with your tax advisor or call us at (612) 874-4740.

Whichever form your gift takes, you have our heartfelt thanks for generously supporting our vision to ensure that every child has an opportunity to succeed in school and in life.

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