How Early Learning Scholarships Support Families and Children in Need

Jamie Bonczyk


The Minnesota Department of Education's (MDE) Early Learning Scholarships provide essential financial support to families, enabling access to high-quality child care and early education for children from birth to 4 years old. These scholarships must be used at Parent Aware-rated programs, ensuring that children receive the best early learning experiences available. This initiative aligns with the goals of Greater Twin Cities United Way and 80x3:Resilient from the Start to dismantle inequities in early childhood education by supporting families and early childhood programs. 

To be eligible for a scholarship, families must meet specific criteria, and priority is given to children of teen parents, those in foster care, those in need of child protective services, and children who have experienced homelessness in the past 24 months. Starting July 1, 2024, the priority will expand to include children with incarcerated parents, parents in substance use or mental health treatment programs, and those who have experienced domestic violence.

Families interested in applying should contact their Area Administrator for more information about eligibility and available programs. 

Below are firsthand accounts from an experienced early childhood care professional and mothers on the incredible opportunity the Early Learning Scholarships provide and the undeniable impact on Minnesota families.

Krystal Shatek — In my role as Senior Director of Children’s Programs at Perspectives Inc., I was able to witness the impact that eligibility for an early learning scholarship had on the whole family’s well-being. Combating both addiction and mental health disorders is incredibly challenging for any person, and with children involved, and no affordable childcare, it becomes impossible to successfully complete a treatment program.  Being the sole caregiver for one or more children, without any respite, is mentally and emotionally draining, and this only exacerbates the challenges parents are facing as they try to navigate their recovery, increasing the risk of relapsing back into substance use in order to cope with the stress. Thankfully, many of the mothers I served were able to receive early learning scholarships because they had been homeless in the previous 24 months. However, mothers who had been in the supportive housing program for longer than 24 months were unable to receive an early learning scholarship so they could attend treatment programs. Sadly, this often led to relapse, involvement with child protective services, foster placements for their children, and in some cases, incarceration. For their children, these prolonged traumatic experiences can have long-term negative effects on their development, especially for young children under five years old. As a voting member of the Great Start Task Force, one of my biggest priorities was recommending that children with a parent in a substance use treatment program or mental health treatment program be included in the list of priority populations for early learning scholarships. For families who are on the path to recovery and healing, access to childcare can be a pillar of hope in a seemingly impossible journey and may be just what they need to make it out of the dark and into a healthy and safe future for themselves and their children.

Laura E. — I am so thankful for the Early Learning Scholarship I received for my son while I was still in the beginning stages of recovery.  Since he was about 7 months old, he had been in daycare.  I was trying to heal from trauma, addiction and raise two young boys, on my own.  I knew I needed help and sought out childcare for my youngest son because I was exhausted and barely keeping my head above water.  I knew that he needed a place where he could play and have fun but also learn, while I also had the time to myself to go to therapy, groups and get myself grounded and healthy to be the best mother I could be.  Having the scholarship helped me so much.  Without the help, I do not know how I would have been able to be where and who I am today.  I will be 4 years sober on June 25th and my boys are doing amazing. It was such a blessing and I thank God for how he provided for us in that way, and I would love to see other mothers and fathers be able to receive the same support I did.  It was instrumental to the progress I was able to make in staying sober and truly taking the time to be intentional about my healing, so I can give my all to my boys.

Corinne M. — I am a single mother in early recovery, and I have 3+ years of sobriety.  I work in the recovery field, and I am finally going back to college. However, before I started my recovery, I had 5 felony counts pending trial, and CPS had already taken my newborn daughter into foster care. There is so much that has happened in between those 3 years, so many decisions carefully made, and one of those decisions that helped shape where my small family is today was the decision to apply for an early learning scholarship. 

My daughter and I were at the Harriett Tubman Shelter, waiting for coordinated entry to place us in Perspectives Housing. At first, before she could run away from me, it was easy to take her with me everywhere, even without a car. Once the 6-month review period was up and we were awarded the scholarship, I did not waste any time before taking the bus to child care and enrolling my daughter in daycare. 

This was not just for me, this was before I had a car so I had to take the bus and it was an hour round trip, but I knew Oaklyn would benefit from being around children her own age, and taking some time away from mommy to develop social skills outside the house.

Getting MN Early Learning Scholarship changed our lives, it marked the start of our family’s independence from inpatient facility programming and opened up new learning opportunities for both my daughter and myself.

I was able to work on getting my license unsuspended in Florida, filing for child support, obtaining a pro bono lawyer (thanks to Harriett Tubman Family Law), filing for divorce, finding a cheap/affordable car, and then finally being able to lawfully drive my own car and maintain a job and finally go back to college. Things I could never do in my addiction, are also things I could never do if I had to worry about taking care of my daughter the entire day. People do not realize that addicts in early recovery don’t just have to worry about relapsing, we basically have to rebuild our lives from the ground up, that’s why they call it rock bottom.

On top of getting my life back together, being able to rely on having time to myself every weekday has been so valuable, and Oaklyn has been able to expand her world outside of our tiny apartment and start to become her own person as she navigates learning how to behave in new social settings.

It was through her preschool, Early Connections at Perspectives Inc., that I was introduced to the Grow with Me program, which has been instrumental in teaching my daughter healthy ways to communicate how she feels, and even how to recognize what emotions she is feeling.

It’s another layer of support for my daughter and me. We don’t have any family in Minnesota, and her father is still in active addiction, so any support we can get we will take!

Not everyone has a family available to help watch their baby, and it puts single moms in a hard situation. With the increasing costs of child care, I don’t know anyone who does not struggle with childcare. Without childcare financial assistance options like MN Early Learning Scholarships, there would be a lot more families having to rely on the county for help, but that just takes even more options away from families who already have little, to begin with.

It can sometimes feel like society is punishing me for not making things work with my ex-husband, the father of our daughter. If I’d have stayed with him, I would have had free childcare because his parents would help out, but I would be abused and my daughter would be exposed to meth use, these are the types of life-altering decisions that make having the power of choice so important. 

Giving single family homes like mine the opportunity to have a reliable provider to take my daughter to each day means freedom from having to rely on abusive family members who don’t always have my daughter’s best interests in mind.

About the Author

Jamie Bonczyk is a Program Officer for 80×3: Resilient from the Start, an innovative region-wide initiative to increase capacity to support parenting skills and provide trauma-sensitive early child care in a safe, stable environment that supports child resiliency. Her background includes the roles of executive director of an early learning nonprofit, Head Start administrator, adjunct instructor, author, professional development content creator, and preschool teacher. Jamie has a bachelor’s degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead and a master’s degree from Roosevelt University, both in early childhood education. She completed a Head Start Management Fellowship at UCLA and became a Certified Professional Project Manager through the University of St Thomas.

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