It was only the second day of class in their little lives and the students in the Alberton Preschool had already gotten the attention of Montana’s governor, Steve Bullock. He was visiting 17 schools around the state who had qualified for the STARS Preschool grant, one of which was Alberton. On Aug. 31 he met with the school principal, Kyle Fisher, Superintendent Steve Picard and preschool teacher Sue Dallapiazza to welcome them back to school. He also visited Franklin Elementary School in Missoula earlier that day.
“It’s an exciting time for kids all across our state as they return back to the classroom with even greater opportunities to learn and succeed,” said Gov. Bullock. “With everything from breakfast in the classroom, to high-quality early childhood education and critical infrastructure upgrades, teachers, parents and students have so much to celebrate this school year.”
The five students enrolled in the new class seemed oblivious to the extra attention as they played with various toys and read a book in the freshly decorated room. Previously, it had been used for storage and small classroom activities. But Dallapiazza and Kim Garding, her assistant, had brightened up the room with colorful rugs, posters featuring numbers and the alphabet, and shelves filled with books and games to start the school year.
Alberton Elementary was awarded with the $85,000 STARS Preschool grant to serve 12-15 children this year. Gov. Bullock worked with the 2017 Montana Legislature to expand early childhood educational services. Funding to create a pilot preschool program was included in House Bill 649 and passed with bipartisan support for $6 million for two years. Communities across the state were selected to receive funding this school year and will serve more than 300 4r- and 5-year old children.
High costs and limited access to high-quality programs across Montana prevent many families from taking advantage of early childhood education opportunities. The average cost of childcare for a 4-year-old in Montana is $7,900 – or 13 percent of the average family’s income. However, ages zero to 5 are most critical for building a foundation that will result in fewer problems down the road. Research shows that children with high-quality early learning opportunities are more likely to read at grade level, graduate from high school, and earn even more money; and that every $1 spent on high-quality preschool programs creates $7 in future savings to the communities and states that invest in them.
A selection committee made up of representatives from the Governor’s Office, Legislature, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, public education and early childhood education experts reviewed a total of 47 applications and then selected the programs for funding based on the quality of the application, readiness of the program, geographic diversity, and diversity of program type.
During his visit, Bullock explained that 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time they are 5 years old. If they are not kindergarten ready then they are half as likely to be at reading level by third grade and four times more likely to drop out of high school. He also noted that at the Montana state prison, 80 percent of the inmates were high school dropouts.
All but four states in the U.S. have either private or public preschool programs, “we know this works,” said Bullock. “What we hope to accomplish across the state in urban, rural and with Headstart, is to show that it can work in Montana.”
During the next legislative session he will be calling on school administration, teachers and parents involved to testify to the success of the programs. Preschool can be through the school system or through private providers as long as they have the same standards of quality.
The other Montana STARS Preschool grantees included: Head Start, Inc., Billings; Discovery Place Child Care, Bozeman; Stepping Stones Preschool, Dillon; Eastgate Elementary, East Helena Public Schools Dist. 9, East Helena; ABC Academy, Helena; Helena Public Schools Montessori-Hawthorne, Helena; Early Childhood Center at Flathead Valley Community College, Kalispell; Small Wonder Child Care Inc., Lewistown; Lockwood School District, Lockwood; Lolo School District/Lolo Preschool and Child Care, Lolo; Marion School District 54, Marion; Cherry Valley Elementary, Polson School District 23, Polson; Beartooth Children’s Center, Red Lodge; Ronan School District No. 30, Ronan; Kountry Kare, Shepherd; Troy Public School, Troy.
“We know that it substantially impacts the kids,” Bullock said.
“In Oklahoma, 70 percent of the 4-year-olds are in publically funded programs. It took them 20 years to reach that point but we don’t have 20 years more of experiments to do with the kids. We’ve got to get up and running.”
Fisher said the Alberton staff and administration fully support the program and are looking forward to including preschool. It is held during regular school hours and days which is Monday through Thursday since Alberton has a four-day school week.
The preschoolers will take more breaks throughout the day, including a few naps. Otherwise, they will have lunch in the cafeteria and take the bus just like all the other students.
Dallapiazza is new to the Alberton School system and previously worked in Missoula and Florence. She said she’s happy to be a part of the new program.
The students who make up the school’s first ever preschool class includes Ryan Johns, Sadie Powell, Leland Norris, Cason Gardner and Amity Evans.