Eager students and teachers shared a well-balanced lunch with Gov. Steve Bullock at Flathead Valley Community College’s Early Childhood Center Thursday afternoon as part of the governor’s up-close look at an expanded learning program partially funded by the Stars preschool pilot initiative, a $6 million statewide investment created during last year’s legislative session.
Bullock is in the midst of a tour of preschool facilities throughout Montana where he is touting the long- and short-term benefits of available and affordable early childhood education, an assessment the staff at ECC roundly applauded. There are currently 17 Stars-financed schools in Montana, what Bullock called “prototypes” to test publicly funded education for 4- and 5-year-old students, and a potential precursor to more widespread funding in the future.
“What I’m hoping is that we’ll be able to take the experiences we have through that $6 million — which was kind of a one-time only, to say ‘what would this look like in Montana?’ — and talk to the legislators about making it a much greater investment,” Bullock said.
At the start of the 2017 session, Bullock proposed $37 million in preschool funding, an amount he claims could have helped subsidize the education of half of the preschoolers in the state. The Stars program is Montana’s first public investment in its youngest students, Bullock said, making the state one of the last in the country to offer that support.
“I’m hoping we’ll be able to figure out what the other 45 states already have,” he said. “That these are investments that we ought to be making.”
After finishing his lunch of meatballs, rice and veggies, and receiving a dozen or so hand-made cards from students, Bullock met with the staff in charge of FVCC’s Early Childhood Center, which provides care for kids as young as 6 weeks old. The Stars grant provided the ECC with $150,000 in funding to pay for additional staff for 4- and 5-year-old students at the center, administrators said, and allows students to enjoy a more well-rounded educational experience that includes art, dance, music and even martial arts training. Improved student-to-teacher ratios (approximately 10-to-1) have also allowed more attention to be given to students with special needs in an effort to detect and treat problems at an early age, preventing, they said, those issues from snowballing into something more serious years later in the public school system.
Kendall Brooks, the ECC’s preschool program coordinator, returned to the school this year thanks to the Stars grant and said teaching life skills in preschool gives students a much greater chance of educational success once they age out of the program.
“This is when they learn coping mechanisms and how to regulate their bodies and how to handle a situation they’re uncomfortable in,” Brooks said. “This is where you learn how to negotiate, how to trade, how to be a good person and have those skills.”
The Early Childhood Center enrolls students from throughout the local community, with preference given to parents who are FVCC students, and administrators said a long waiting list exists to be admitted to the program, not unlike other preschools around the state. ECC does offer need-based financial aid to some families, but there are significant financial challenges the parents of preschoolers face, too. Bullock’s staff claimed the average annual cost for a 4-year-old to attend preschool in Montana is $7,900 but Bullock and the staff at the ECC agreed that investing in education at a young age would save money down the road.
“Even in a tough budget time, it’s that much more important to double-down on these investments because of the long-term impacts,” Bullock said. “We need to make sure that these kids have every opportunity to succeed throughout school and it’s a lot harder to do without a quality preschool program.”
For more information on the Early Childhood Center, visit www.fvcc.edu/student-support/early-childhood-center/.