Special Report: STARS preschool grants fuel new programs around Montana, but future uncertain

Posted at 4:03 PM, May 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:02:41-04

(HELENA) At Helena’s Hawthorne Elementary School, educators and students are eight months into an experiment.

Heidi Tussing is leading a group of 16 four- and five-year-olds – the Helena School District’s first publicly-funded preschool class.

“For the most part, most of them have settled in,” she said.

Her class uses a Montessori curriculum, in which teachers introduce students to a variety of lessons, and kids decide for themselves which ones to practice. Tussing said that gives them more freedom to direct their own learning.

“It’s so individualized that they can choose, wherever they are developmentally,” she said. “Some of them know their numbers one through nine, some do not, and they can just move on at their own pace.”

She said she’s seen significant growth from her students over the last few months.

“I think any child that gets the exposure to math and language, learning conflict resolution with each other and just having a more structured environment are at an advantage when they go into kindergarten,” Tussing said.

The Hawthorne preschool program was made possible by the STARS preschool grant, a state pilot program approved by the Montana Legislature last year. Lawmakers agreed to set aside $6 million over two years to expand access to early education. Supporters hailed it as the first time the state had invested directly in preschool education.

When the program was announced, Hawthorne principal Deb Jacobsen and Broadwater Elementary School principal Sue Sweeney quickly put together a grant application.

“It’s always been a topic of conversation amongst the educators in our district, because we know that preschool is such a good thing for kids and for families,” said Jacobsen.

In July, state leaders announced the first 17 grant recipients, including Helena Public Schools. Administrators had just a few weeks to put the class together before school began in August.

“It was very quick,” Jacobsen said.

Tussing was hired as lead teacher, after previously working for a private Montessori program. Her preschool class was placed at Hawthorne because the school had an open classroom, but it was open to students from across the Helena School District. District leaders ended up receiving 115 applications for the 16 open spots.

“We wanted everybody to have a space,” Jacobsen said. “Those numbers showed how great the need is, and the desire is, to have quality preschool, public-funded preschool.”

The 16 students were chosen by lottery. Among them was Kam Wrigg’s daughter Torri.

“We happened to be one of the lucky ones,” Wrigg said.

Wrigg said he quickly saw benefits from the class.

“It’s been very noticeable what they’re learning each and every day, with just listening to her talk and point things out as you’re driving around town,” he said.

He believes having an earlier exposure to the school atmosphere and routine will give Torri an advantage his older children didn’t have.

“They struggled with their early kindergarten and first-grade year; they had issues with adapting to the environment,” he said. “I think I’ll see her excel where they struggled.”

The 17 initial STARS grant recipients served about 300 students across Montana, in large cities and in small towns. State leaders say more than half of the students are from “high-needs” categories, like low-income families or those at risk of homelessness.

Because the STARS funding was only appropriated for two years, the future for many of these preschool classes is uncertain. Jacobsen said the Hawthorne program will have to go dormant at the end of the two years, unless another source of funding can be found.

This year, Gov. Steve Bullock has visited several of the STARS programs, from Billings, Shepherd and Lewistown to Kalispell and Troy.

“What I’ve seen when I’ve visited these STARS classrooms across the state is young boys and girls engaged and ready to learn,” he said.

Bullock said he wants to make expanding access to early education a priority. He said he eventually hopes Montana will made preschool available to every family that wants it.

The governor said he has not yet determined what specific preschool proposals he will bring before the 2019 Legislature. During a previous legislative session, he proposed a $37 million program that he said could have covered about half of Montana’s preschool-age children.

“This is something that we as a state really do need to be investing in,” he said.

As part of the STARS program, grant recipients are collecting data, through student assessments, parent surveys and other tools. Bullock said that information could help demonstrate the value of early education.

“We’ll hear from teachers that have said what a difference that it makes as these kids go into kindergarten,” he said. “The average cost of day care is about $7,900 a year for one child, so we’ll hear from parents saying what a difference they’ve seen – not only in their pocketbook, but in the progression of their children as we’re setting them up for success.”

Republican state Sen. Dan Salomon of Ronan chairs the Senate Education Committee. He said lawmakers will look closely at any evidence the governor provides.

“We’re asking for data,” he said. “From the Republican side, we’re saying, ‘Prove it. You say it’s invaluable for these kids, prove it.’

Salomon said he had seen some studies that suggested students who went to preschool got an early academic boost, but that it wouldn’t carry on throughout their school years.

He also said Bullock’s proposals will have to take into account the realities of the state budget.

“We have to see what approach he takes,” he said. “Of course it will come down to, what do you cut to make it affordable or where do you find the money?”

Bullock said, despite recent state budget cuts, he believes leaders can find a way to continue funding preschool programs.

“A budget is a reflection of the priorities we as a state have,” he said. “From my perspective, the idea of investing in some of our youngest is something that most Montanans want.”

Regardless of what elected leaders decide, the Hawthorne preschool program will continue at least next year. All 17 of this year’s grant recipients met the state’s requirements of the STARS program and will receive continued funding for the 2018-19 school year. That means Hawthorne will welcome a new class of four- and five-year-olds in August.

“It’s very important for our elected officials to be cognizant of what’s going on in our preschools,” said Jacobsen. “These are our little kids, our youngest learners, and they grow up. Those who have been in preschool classes, research tends to show that they do better, they have lower dropout rates, they have lower incarceration rates, they have lower special education needs. It’s an incredible investment in children, but also in our community.”

In addition to the current 17 programs, the state will also award STARS funding for one or two additional classes in the 2018 school year. Leaders say they will give preference to programs in rural areas, especially in the Hi-Line or Eastern Montana. Applications are due by June 5.

More information on the STARS Preschool program can be found on the Montana DPHHS website.

2017 STARS Preschool Grant Recipients:

ABC Academy, Helena, $109,087
Alberton Public Schools, Alberton, $85,586
Beartooth Children’s Center, Red Lodge, $115,918
Discovery Place Child Care, Bozeman, $27,190
East Helena Public Schools, East Helena, $102,868
Flathead Valley Community College Early Childhood Center, Kalispell, $150,000
Head Start, Inc., Billings/Laurel, $215,591
Helena Public Schools, Helena, $149,853
Kountry Kare, Shepherd, $132,737
Lockwood School District, Lockwood, $202,935
Lolo School District, Lolo, $143,500
Marion School District, Marion, $89,700
Polson School District, Polson, $149,500
Ronan School District, Ronan/Pablo, $298,000
Small Wonder Child Care, Lewistown, $133,000
Stepping Stones Preschool, Dillon, $149,860
Troy Public Schools, Troy, $126,424