Gov. Steve Bullock sat down to a family style meal of meatballs, rice and carrots with a table of 4- to 5-year-olds at the Flathead Valley Community College Early Childhood Center on Thursday.
In addition to learning about the children’s favorite foods, activities and interests, the focus of Bullock’s visit was to hear from educators about the benefits of having a high-quality preschool program.
The FVCC Early Childhood Center is one of 17 in the Stars preschool pilot program.
Bullock worked with the 2017 Montana Legislature to secure one-time funding of $6 million over the next two years to expand preschool opportunities. Montana was previously one six states that did not provide state funds for public preschool.
As K-12 public schools grapple with decreased state funding, Bullock sees early childhood education as an investment, which he has promoted during his tenure as governor.
“The investments we make before a child even comes to kindergarten are investments that will take them throughout their life,” Bullock said. “A study was done that for every dollar spent in quality early childhood education there’s a $9 return. So from my perspective it’s an investment that we can’t afford not to be making,” Bullock said.
FVCC is receiving $150,000 in grant funding this year and next to provide tuition-free preschool.
Through a high-quality program, students are learning social and emotional skills in addition to fine and gross motor skills, according to Kendall Brooks who was hired through the grant funding as the preschool program coordinator. Brooks provides staff and classroom supports in addition to assisting with curriculum development.
The funding has also allowed staff to assess and identify students who may have special needs and hold enrichment programs such as art, dance, martial arts and soccer, according to Early Childhood Education Center Director Renee August.
Brooks said children are in a safe environment where they learn appropriate behaviors and responses to a variety of situations. They also gain independence and become competent, setting them up for kindergarten.
“They are going to be great people when they grow up with the foundations that they have here — being able to regulate yourself, being able to know what your needs are, and how to be successful in an environment — how to speak up, how to solve a problem,” Brooks said.
Identifying and providing support early on gives students an advantage later in life, according to Eliza Sorte-Thomas, an education faculty member.
“If we would spend the money here where we can actually do something and make a big difference in a short amount of time,” Sorte-Thomas said.
“We can ... possibly even reduce the number of children that end up in special education — not because they have special needs — but because they didn’t have their needs met when they needed that,” she said.
There is a demand for preschool programs in the valley. The FVCC Early Childhood Center alone has a wait-list of 40 children.
Preschool programming has been expanded locally once before. In 2014, Montana was the recipient of a federal Preschool Development grant from the Department of Education.
Bullock is hopeful that a state-funded public preschool will continue.
“Going into the legislative session come next January, we’ll be able to show that in towns as small as Troy, and towns as big as Kalispell or Billings, that it’s made a meaningful difference,” Bullock said.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.