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AUSTIN EDITION Child-development programs good, but not always accessible

By Tim Ruzek

truzek@postbulletin.com

Early childhood development in Austin is good, with many quality programs available, according to a majority of respondents in a recent survey.

On Wednesday, members of the local coalition of the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative discussed the results of its survey on early-childhood issues done in September and this month. Eighty-six people from various community sectors responded to 35 questions, such as what can be done to make the community better for families with young kids.

The coalition met for the second time to work on its vision and plan for improving the state of early childhood in Austin, said Shannon Hart, coordinator of the local initiative program. The group shared thoughts on the local assets and opportunities.

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Members discussed how the community has high-quality early childhood programs, but they're not always accessible.

The group also talked about the need to increase the quality and availability of child care, better prepare kids for kindergarten, and provide more support for teenage and single parents.

In June, Austin was chosen as one of six communities to participate in the Early Childhood Initiative, sponsored by Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

Overall, six Minnesota foundations selected 36 pilot communities.

Each community will get technical support, educational information and up to $15,000 to support child-development efforts. The Parenting Resource Center in Austin wrote the application for the local grant.

The Early Childhood Initiative focuses on developing a coalition of parents, businesses, community groups, early childhood professionals and other citizens.

The survey also found that despite having quality early-childhood care and educational experiences, many families with young children aren't aware of the programs and services available in Austin. Low-income, minority and other diverse populations also aren't adequately served because of language barriers and conflicts with parents' work hours.

A majority of respondents also stated that many jobs in Austin don't provide wages or benefits that can support families, according to the survey. Affordable housing is "very scarce" in the city, the survey said.

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Doug Myers, a coalition member and former Austin public schools superintendent, asked coalition leaders to gather more details on the makeup of the community because he believes the survey didn't involve enough people.

Anni Mills, a coordinator with Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, who led part of the meeting, agreed but said the survey was just a beginning point.

"I think it definitely starts the conversation," she said.

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