Laura Yuen
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The kids who just graduated from a north Minneapolis preschool are about to take their talents to kindergarten.

Their leap from day care to grade school? Well, that's a big deal. That's why, instead of handing them diplomas and a handshake, their teachers celebrated their achievement with all the fanfare typically rewarded to elite athletes. Each of the 16 graduates was bestowed with a T-shirt bearing the name of the school they've "committed" to attending in the fall.

A snippet of what it sounded like: "Next we have Tamarrius!" (Cue wild handclapping and hurrahs.) "And he's committed to going to Sheridan!"

Sheridan. Loring. Hall. Marcy. Friendship Academy. Ascension.

It felt like Draft Day had come to the pre-K graduation at Catholic Charities Northside Child Development Center, but with an education focus. What happened next had the elements of National Signing Day.

The kids all took part in a ceremonial signing of a pledge — to their kindergarten career.

Preschool grad Tamarrius Campbell-Cook poses for a photo with his mother, Tamara Campbell.
Preschool grad Tamarrius Campbell-Cook poses for a photo with his mother, Tamara Campbell.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

They promised to go to bed on time, listen to their teachers, try their hardest in school and be a good friend.

The moment was about taking stock of their hard work while putting these 5-year-olds on a path to greatness. Both joy and decorum filled the room. Moms sat with bouquets of flowers in their laps. A big sister emotionally squealed, "That's my baby!" The graduates were all shined up, wearing everything from bright white Nike sneakers and button-downs to pink tulle gowns.

And maybe that's in part because this isn't any preschool. Some of the kids in this class have dealt with community violence, incarcerated parents, homelessness and foster care.

One mom, Tamara Campbell, teared up when she remembered how just a few days before, someone shot at a house two doors from her home, just a couple of blocks from the center. The gunfire is so routine that she jots down the incidents on her phone's calendar, just to have a record. "9 shots 2 houses over," her notes read in the 3 a.m. Sunday time slot.

She gets emotional when it sinks in "that my kids have to grow up around that," said Campbell, who works in a school cafeteria. "I can't afford to move anywhere else."

Less than an hour before the morning ceremony, she said, a group of Kia Boys raced past her with squealing tires, presumably in stolen cars.

So the preschool, which teaches her son Tamarrius math facts and sight words while rearing him with love, has become a precious refuge. "When my baby is here, I know he's safe," she said.

Keyowa King, center, hugs his son Kacyn King, right, who just graduated from preschool, while also holding his 4-year-old daughter Kira King after Kacyn’s graduation ceremony.
Keyowa King, center, hugs his son Kacyn King, right, who just graduated from preschool, while also holding his 4-year-old daughter Kira King after Kacyn’s graduation ceremony.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

The center, which has been in operation for 37 years, serves about 100 children whose families receive child-care assistance from Hennepin County. Like many other day cares, it has been pummeled by staffing shortages, unrest after the murder of George Floyd and by COVID, but it never closed its doors. With a wait list of 90 kids, it doesn't have the capacity to serve every child in need of a quality early learning program.

This year the Legislature mightily expanded funding for early childhood initiatives, including early learning scholarships for low-income families. That's a sound strategy — for not just improving the quality of life of the children, but for their future contributions as adults.

We've known this for at least 20 years, after the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis issued a report detailing those private and public returns. A quality education during the critical years of brain development from birth to age 5 can impart a child with the building blocks to increase their chances of succeeding in school and beyond.

Sometimes there's a stigma about Black and brown kids on the North Side, or assumptions about whether their parents value education. Program director Kim Osborn, who's worked at the center 29 years, says that in this land of school choice, parents spend a lot of time researching the schools that their children will eventually attend.

"The families are committed to making their own goals," she said. "There's a stigma of them not caring. But they're very proud of their children. Sometimes that gets overshadowed because of the carjackings, or the Kia Boys, the shootings and the violence."

True, many of her kids at the center are street-smart. Once they cautioned her not to pick up a knife on the ground coming back from the park, lest she leave behind fingerprints. Last summer, they didn't get to go outside much because of all the gunfire. But when Osborn has asked parents how, if at all, they wanted the center to address the violence, the answer was: Just let my kids come here and have a normal day. Just have a safe space where they can do their thing.

After the ceremony, Briana Thompson and her fiancé were aglow with pride. Thompson said she wants her son, Kacyn King, to know he can go on to do wonderful things. Maybe he'll be an architect or an engineer.

Her hopes and dreams for her son boil down to this: "That he continues to be a strong learner and leader that he is. That he grows up to be a hardworking young man for this world. And that he keeps that big imagination of his."

Kacyn says he's ready to start kindergarten.

What's he most excited about?

"Legos," he said.