DeAnn Jones is excited to have won a grant from the Montana STARS Preschool program, which aims to educate Montana 4-year-olds to improve their chances of success in kindergarten, in school and in life.
Thanks to the STARS grant, Jones is able to offer full-day daycare for $315 a month at her Discovery Place Child Care in Bozeman, and half-day kids attend for free. Next school year she’ll expand from seven to 12 children.
“I really hope it continues,” said Monday. “It’s super fun. Parents love it, and I already have a waiting list.”
Gov. Steve Bullock has been an outspoken advocate for investing in early childhood education, arguing that Montana has been one of only a handful of states not to do so.
In 2015 he proposed the $37 million Early Edge preschool program, which would have provided money to educate 4-year-olds whose families signed up for it, but the Republican Legislature rejected the bill.
In 2017 Bullock tried again, proposing $12 million. In the end the 2017 Legislature approved $6 million over two years for the STARS pilot program. It marked the first time the state has invested in what the governor called “high-quality early childhood education.”
Though the 2019 Legislature doesn’t begin for nine months, Bullock has already announced that he plans to ask lawmakers again to budget money for early childhood education. Last week he toured three of the 17 communities operating STARS pilot preschools to draw attention to the program.
“The budget is a reflection of our values and this is an important priority for the governor,” said Marissa Perry, Bullock’s press secretary.
The 17 grants were made available to public schools, Head Start, private preschools, community, military and tribal programs.
Jones’ Discovery Place Child Care, located in a family house near Chief Joseph Middle School, is the only STARS pilot program in Bozeman. Jones said it’s the only one awarded to an in-home childcare.
“They’re trying to see which works the best,” Jones said. “I feel I’m pulling weight for all the family childcares – they’re overlooked a lot as being high quality.”
Jones has a Ph.D. from Utah State University in family and human development. She’s working with two student interns from Montana State University, who are working on capstone projects for degrees in early childhood education.
The STARS pilot program is making “an incredible difference,” Jones said. “I love this. I love the training, feeling more professional. Families definitely appreciate that it’s free.
“In all the research I’ve read, if you’re sending children to high-quality preschool, they make all these gains,” Jones said. “They do better in school, better in social-emotional growth.”
She stresses learning through play. The 4-year-olds play at taking restaurant orders and writing letters, learn about colors and clothing, grow plants, take votes and tally up numbers, and take field trips to see cows.
“I really enjoy watching them learn, seeing the light bulb go off,” Jones said.
The children’s progress in social-emotional growth and school skills will be analyzed to see which preschools work best, she said.
Bozeman School Superintendent Rob Watson said the public schools are operating two preschool programs, at Whittier and Hyalite elementary schools, which are open to any 4-year-olds who qualify, often because of low income or disability. Bozeman’s Running Start program is funded from a $40 million, four-year federal grant awarded to Montana, which is slated to end next school year.
Preschools really help children learn letters and pre-reading skills that will help when they arrive in kindergarten, Watson said. “They set students off on the right foot.”
Elsie Arntzen, state superintendent of public instruction, has expressed concern about whether ramping up public preschools is sustainable, particularly when it relies on federal funding, said Dylan Klapmeier, communications director.
“There are concerns future federal funding might not be there,” he said.
Arntzen’s other concern is that schools don’t have the building space, infrastructure or teachers to add pre-kindergarten classes.
“We have a shortage of teachers and if we add another element, it will be a further burden,” Klapmeier said.