About the Event

Only 30% of Minnesota 8th graders were deemed proficient in reading in a recent national assessment (NCES 2022). Addressing this troubling statistic begins with babies. There is much that can be done, in a developmentally appropriate way, both at home and in early care and education settings, to help achieve the state’s literacy goals. This hour will cover the elements of early literacy, how those elements relate to the broader discussion about reading in elementary, middle, and high school, and what Minnesota policymakers can do to ensure every child has a strong foundation for later reading success.


8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.  Breakfast and Networking

9:00 a.m. Welcome & Introductions, Barbara Yates

Opening Presentation, Kim Gibbons

Panel Discussion

Audience Questions

10:00 Adjourn


Moderator and Panelists

Kim Gibbons (Moderator)

Kim Gibbons, Ph.D., currently is the Director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota. Prior to that, she was the Executive Director of the St. Croix River Education District (SCRED) located in Rush City, MN. SCRED has received national recognition for its use of the Response to Intervention (RtI) framework. In 2007, SCRED received a legislative appropriation to fund a statewide Minnesota RtI Center for two years. Dr. Gibbons obtained her doctoral degree in school psychology from the University of Oregon where she received extensive training in the problem solving model, curriculum based measurement, and research-based instructional practices. Prior to her role as the Executive Director, Dr. Gibbons has worked as a director of special education, staff development coordinator, and school psychologist. In addition, she has been on the faculty at the University of Minnesota as an instructor in the School Psychology Program. She is active in state leadership and is the past-president of the Minnesota Association of Special Educators. Finally, she is the co-author of four books and has numerous other peer-reviewed publications. She is a sought-after consultant who has given numerous workshops throughout the nation.


Julie Novak (Panelist)

Julie Novak is the Director of Literacy for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), overseeing the agency’s Literacy Unit and all literacy-related projects within the agency and the Regional Literacy Network. Prior to joining MDE, Julie served as a School Advocate at the Central Lakes Regional Center of Excellence in Sartell, where she worked with districts and schools to implement evidence-based practices to accelerate student learning. She also served as co-lead with the Collaborative Minnesota Partnerships to Advance Student Success (COMPASS) Literacy team to support districts in their Structured Literacy implementation work.  Julie has more than 20 years of experience in driving educational excellence and fostering positive change in diverse settings. She has held previous roles as a teacher, curriculum director, and Title I Coordinator in New Mexico and Colorado.  She has a master’s degree in elementary education and a certificate in educational leadership from the University of New Mexico.


Senator Mary Kunesh (Panelist)

Senator Mary K. Kunesh was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016 and served for two terms before being elected to the Senate in 2021. She represents Senate District 39, which covers the communities of St. Anthony Village, New Brighton, Hilltop, Columbia Heights, Fridley, and Spring Lake Park.  She currently serves as Chair of the Senate Education Finance committee.  Kunesh was born in Saint Paul and raised in Sartell, Minnesota. Her mother is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and her father a former St. Cloud City Attorney, and later Assistant Stearns County Attorney. She attended St. Catherine University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education in 1995, and later attended St. Cloud State University, graduating with a Master of Arts in information media in 2010. She retired from her role as a library media specialist for Robbinsdale Area Schools in November 2020, most recently Robbinsdale Middle School. Kunesh resides in New Brighton and has three adult children.


Kiran Sheikh (Panelist)

Kiran Sheikh serves as the Director of Early Learning Corps with Ampact, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving communities by combining science and research with the power of people through Americorps. Although intending for law school, Kiran’s career path shifted after her service with America Reads as a reading tutor. Her passion to understand and advocate for individual student needs led her to the field of School Psychology. Since completing her graduate studies, Kiran has served in varying capacities in the field of early childhood education, most notably in her roles with the Head Start and Early Head Start program of Miami Dade County and the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties. In her current role, Kiran provides leadership and direction through the development of training, program materials, and program coaching to support the successful implementation of the Early Learning Corps program, which seeks to yield positive and equitable outcomes for students as it relates to core early literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional skill development. As a mother to five, Kiran witnesses early learning and the impact of early intervention daily. She is committed to the narrative that early learning matters and can be embedded into daily life with intentional and meaningful interactions between adults and children.


Be sure to use these hashtags when sharing about Small Talks on social media: #smalltalks23, #raisingreaders, #literacybeginsatbirth, #thinksmallMN

For more on this topic, check out our recent blog: Literacy Starts at Birth

Small Talks Slides

Early Literacy White Paper


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