With grants totaling nearly $6 million from The McKnight Foundation, two Twin Cities school districts will implement new or refined initiatives over the next three years to improve early literacy. Grants will support efforts at specified sites within Brooklyn Center Independent School District #286 and Minneapolis Special School District #1. McKnight aims to increase the literacy rate of Twin Cities students by the end of third grade, by supporting promising schools to create and share new models of success.

To ensure potential for success and sustainability of programming, the grants were preceded by a planning year for each school to prepare for possible implementation. Throughout planning, the districts worked with internal teams and with the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute to review and address the full gamut of research-based approaches to literacy from pre-kindergarten through third grade, including alignment, best use of instructional time, coherent pathways and partnerships, data and diagnostics, parent and community engagement, and professional capacity. The planning year also allowed districts to prepare key sites for related changes in operations and curriculum. Beyond direct funding, each school was also provided access to opportunities for collaborative learning and knowledge sharing to improve literacy.

“With a tight focus on sites we believe are well-prepped for progress, McKnight’s approach is pointedly comprehensive,” said Ted Staryk, McKnight board chair. “During the planning year, these two districts emerged as powerful, valued partners in McKnight’s work to improve literacy by third grade. With the support of leadership at all levels, they have demonstrated their commitment to join with McKnight and our community to help close Twin Cities’ achievement gaps.”

As with other education efforts in Minnesota and around the country, the focus on PreK through third grade is intentional and informed by research. A student’s reading skill by the end of third grade is an important factor in later academic success.

A national education leader, the Urban Education Institute (UEI) is dedicated to fostering reliably excellent schooling for children in urban America. In close partnership with McKnight’s staff and board of directors, UEI guides and manages the Foundation’s grants to Twin Cities school districts, including coordination of technical assistance and knowledge sharing.

“Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center accomplished extraordinary things in the course of the planning year,” explained UEI director Tim Knowles, “Senior district leaders, principals, and teachers were engaged at every step. Both districts initiated policy reforms to support a robust PreK-3rd grade pipeline for their children and families, and their implementation proposals hold great promise to dramatically deepen literacy levels for thousands of children in the years to come. It is a great privilege to work with such committed, reflective educators.”

In addition to written proposals and extensive site visits, rigorous grant reviews of the two districts included in-depth interviews with each district superintendent, a key principal and district leadership, and the district’s project manager for McKnight-related work.

Through these grants with the school districts and others, McKnight intends to:

  1. improve the quality of literacy education from PreK through third grade,
  2. foster an aligned and seamless education system,
  3. create effective data systems for gathering and disseminating relevant information, and
  4. increase opportunities for support to children with the greatest needs.


Brooklyn Center Independent School District #286 received $3 million over three years to create a new literacy framework within a comprehensive system of literacy education. The framework will include aligned approaches to teaching reading strategies and skills; improving transitions between classrooms and grade levels; and assessments for use PreK-6, as well as reporting systems to share progress with parents.

“Great things happen when great people combine their wealth — talents, skills, and money — and work together to make a difference for young people,” said Brooklyn Center superintendent Keith Lester. “The generosity of The McKnight Foundation with the expertise and guidance of the Urban Education Institute combined with the enthusiasm, skills, and commitment of the Earle Brown staff will assure that great things will happen for our children, Pre-Kindergarten and beyond.”

Developed jointly by literacy specialists, researchers, and teachers within the school, the framework will align all components of the district’s system of literacy education, which encompasses all the interrelated elements of school and community working together to successfully have students reading by grade three. McKnight’s funding will focus on the district’s one PreK-6 elementary school. Earle Brown serves 1,132 students, including the school’s PreK system.

Minneapolis Special School District #1 was awarded $2,993,000 over three years to implement the comprehensive PreK through third grade Partnership for Early Learning program at two pilot sites in 2012.

“We are pleased to once again partner with The McKnight Foundation in support of children and families in Minneapolis,” said Dr. Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. “This funding will allow us to pilot comprehensive services and a curriculum model to ensure that children are ready for school when they enter kindergarten and that they meet the important benchmark of reading proficiently by the end of third grade.”

The district’s key goal is to increase reading proficiency for all students, including the 95% of students who are low income, and/or students of color, and/or bilingual. The two schools that are the focus of this initial implementation request are: Andersen United Community School, which serves 1,150 students from PreK through eighth grade, and Jefferson Elementary School, which serves 628 students from PreK through eighth grade. Both schools serve high numbers of students learning English as a second language and/or living in poverty, and low percentages of students currently proficient in reading by third grade.


The McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation, seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations. Through grantmaking, collaboration, and encouragement of strategic policy reform, we use our resources to attend, unite, and empower those we serve. Founded in 1953 and independently endowed by William and Maude McKnight, the Foundation had assets of approximately $1.9 billion and granted about $91 million in 2011.

McKnight’s Education and Learning National Advisory Committee provides professional oversight and funding recommendations for the Foundation’s literacy program. Composed of national experts in early literacy and representatives from McKnight’s board and staff, Advisory Committee members include:

Ruby Takanishi, chair
Foundation for Child Development

Eugene Garcia
Arizona State University

Kristie Kauerz
College of Education, University of Washington

Kent Pekel
University of Minnesota College Readiness Consortium

Noa Staryk
The McKnight Foundation

Vallay Varro

Kate Wolford
The McKnight Foundation

For more on grants and grant writing, visit Grant Pros.


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