By Stacy Walenter
It was time to line up for the bathroom. In the hustle and bustle of little bodies, somehow, preschoolers Mark and Ariah collided. As Mark, who had taken the brunt of the hit, reached for his head crying, one might expect the entire scene to descend into a chaotic melee of crying children and impatient bladders. But what happened in the classroom of Morrison Elementary’s preschool was quite the opposite.
Ariah immediately reached for her classmate and consoled him. She asked if he was okay, and apologized. And she wasn’t alone.
Many of the other students also lined up to comfort Mark. No one worried about the bathroom. They only worried about their friend.
This level of compassion seems remarkable in a room full of mostly four-year-olds.
“That’s because you’ve modeled that behavior from the start,” classroom aide Nicole Garrison said, as she and head teacher Mellonie Roesler-Begalke sat down to discuss the success of the preschool.
The Morrison Elementary preschool started this school year as part of a STARS Preschool grant administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. According to Governor Steve Bullock’s news release, “Governor Bullock worked with the 2017 Montana Legislature to secure $6 million over the next two years to expand educational services for Montana’s four- and five-year-old’s. Funding to create a pilot preschool program was included in House Bill 649 and passed with bipartisan support.”
15 competitive grants were available. Principle Diane Rewerts and Superintendent Jacob Francom heard about the opportunity at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. The school district did not want to impinge on any other preschool programs in Troy, so before deciding to carry through with the application, Rewerts investigated the possibilities.
A preschool at the Troy Baptist Church had closed and the daycare in the old Hot Club building had also shut down. The only other choice for families in Troy was Head Start, which was already full.
Head Start is also income-based, meaning families in town who did not meet the financial guidelines would have no alternatives.
Rewerts said that she encourages families to go to Head Start first, as it is an important mainstay in the Troy community. But the Morrison preschool gives families something that has been lacking in Troy: options.
With the green light, Rewerts and Francom began the application and enlisted the help of paraprofessional and former Head Start teacher Roesler-Begalke.
Rewerts instructed Roesler-Begalke to envision her dream preschool and base the grant on that vision. Initially, Roesler-Begalke, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Development, had no intention of taking the helm of the new class.
Teaching the preschool requires a teaching license, which would have meant a return to college. Roesler-Begalke was hesitant to add schooling to her full-time job and preferred to focus her free time on her family.
Halfway through the grant-writing process, however, Roesler-Begalke could see the magic unfolding and knew she had to be involved.
Preschools under the STARS program must use an evidence-based curriculum and Roesler-Begalke chose the Creative Curriculum.
“Creative Cirriculum is very flexible. There are general units and there is always something for cognitive, literacy, math, gross and fine motor skills, science, and social studies,” Roesler-Begalke said.
The program was a dream come true for Roesler-Begalke, whose very foundation as a teacher is based in the belief that children learn through play.
“Kids need to have opportunities to move around and we offer them a lot of experiences that are age-appropriate,” Roesler-Begalke said.
Everything about Roesler-Begalke’s classroom gives her students exposure to life on a scale that suits and serves them. When the students learn about the grocery store, they don’t merely read about it in a book. Roesler-Begalke and Garrison take them for a tour of Stein’s.
When they study science, they bring in different soaps to see which makes the best bubbles.
When they learn about the life cycle, they don’t look at an illustration. Roesler-Begalke and Garrison bring in baby chicks to hatch and caterpillars who will become butterflies.
The class walks to the Troy Public Library every month for stories and to learn how to select, check out, and care for a book until its due date.
“They are showing growth in life skills, not just academic skills,” said Donna Chambers, an evaluator for the STARS program, who visits the pilot programs in Troy, Alberton, and Lolo at least once a month. “The students are getting good at solving their own problems.”
For Chambers, the Morrison preschool is particularly special.
“Mel’s classroom stands out. She’s just a natural teacher,” Chambers said during her visit in January. “Mel is having so much fun that the children love learning and they’ve got her spirit.”
Chambers also said that the classroom just looks like fun. Roesler-Begalke put detail into every aspect of her classroom, from play centers that engage the students, to subtle string lights instead of harsh fluorescents, to cleaning the room with vinegar and not chemicals.
The burgeoning preschool has been embraced by the elementary school. Though the tiny students eat separate, family-style lunches in their classroom and have their own exclusive recess times, the room is still a favorite spot for employees and students to visit.
“I go in there every day just to smile,” said Principal Rewerts.
Fellow Morrison employee Timothy Pomeroy, upon hearing Roesler-Begalke wanted a washer and dryer for her “home” station, crafted a tiny set out of cardboard boxes.
In addition to caring for each other, students in the preschool have the opportunity to care for the classroom’s “Mighty Mustang.” When a student receives the mustang, each child gives a compliment to the lucky recipient, citing an instance where he or she has been kind, safe, responsible, or respectful.
“When we started, I used to give the compliment,” Roesler-Begalke said. Later, as the kids grew accustomed to the routine, Roesler-Begalke would start the round of praise, but students often parroted what she said. Now, Roesler-Begalke said, they are able to come up with original accolades on their own and relish uplifting their classmates.
Though every student wants the mustang, they always cheer boisterously for the classmate who receives it.
“It’s like they won a Grammy!” Roesler-Begalke said, laughing.
Superintendent Francom has lauded the preschool as the best in the state. Governor Bullock was due to see the preschool for himself on Thursday, April 12, but had to cancel the visit due to weather. It is expected the visit will be rescheduled.
Another benefit of the preschool is the familiarity students gain with the elementary school before they become kindergarteners.
“The preschool creates a continuity, so kids can move right from preschool to our kindergarten and already know our procedures,” said Superintendent Francom.
If kids qualify for Head Start, Rewerts encourages them to go there. If families feel Morrison is a better fit, enrollment is open for next year. In order to be eligible, students must be four years old on or before September 10. Please contact Morrison Elementary for more information at 295-4321.