FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. -Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has a big job, but a big concern on opening day of the Minnesota State Fair was choosing the right book.
"Are you a good reader?" she asks a boy who has come to hear Cassellius read to him.
It's an important question. Educators know that children who aren't reading proficiently by the third grade can start to fall behind. New test results show Minnesota students are struggling with new reading standards, but still rank among the top in the country on the ACT, which measures college readiness.
Also concerning, a persistent achievement gap between students of color, and white students. Cassellius knows the answers to that won't come easily.
"It's issues of housing, poverty, access, opportunity," said Cassellius.
She points to achievements during the Dayton administration's drive to improve education in Minnesota. "We've achieved every single point on the seven point plan," Cassellius pointed out, including more funding.
"Over $600-million, all-day kindergarten, investing in our kids with disabilities and preschool kids," she said.
Within that, is $46-million Cassellius says will provide scholarships for quality preschool for children in need.
"The problem is, we're still meeting only about 9-percent of the need," Cassellius said, meaning there are 35-thousand children who won't be served by the program.
Getting an early start in education is critical to closing the achievement gap, so is parental involvement.
"Go to the school and talk to your child's teacher," said Cassellius. She believes it is critical for parents to understand the work their students are doing, and to support students and teachers in that work.
For students, the new school year brings this advice from the Commissioner, "Do your homework, make sure you're turning it in."
Spoken like an educator who is excited for a new year, "School is fun!" said Cassellius.