By Stacy Walenter
Montana governor Steve Bullock visited Morrison Elementary in Troy on Thursday, May 3 to see for himself the success of the district’s new preschool.
Morrison’s preschool was made possible through a STARS grant, a program started by Bullock to help realize his dream of free public preschool for all of Montana’s children.
The pilot program was awarded to 15 cities across the state. However, the program is only funded for two years. After two years, the fate of the preschools, and in turn the children of Montana, is in the hands of legislators.
Bullock sat down with superintendent Jacob Francom, principal Diane Rewerts, preschool teacher Mellonie Roesler-Begalke, and parents Kristina Boyd, Teela Stanton, Cam Foote, and Darlene Webley. Those present expressed to Governor Bullock the importance of the preschool and the difference it has made in their lives.
Boyd said the preschool has relieved the tremendous burden of finding quality child care in Troy for working parents. Boyd told the governor that a large portion of her salary was going toward securing a regular and worthy person to watch her child. With the preschool, there is no longer a worrying roulette game of daycare.
Stanton said the school gives her peace of mind because her preschooler can ride the bus with an older sibling. She doesn’t have to coordinate how her children will get home at different times while she is at work in Libby.
Foote, who is the pastor at Troy Community Baptist Church, addressed how his own church tried to open and maintain a preschool, but that there was a gap between the cost of paying quality teachers versus what members of the community could afford. He was grateful that Morrison’s preschool has been able to assist special needs kids, a service that would have been completely unavailable in Troy without the preschool.
Webley said that as a retiree, the same time and financial constraints did not affect her. However, she acknowledged the preschool is supplying learning opportunities she doesn’t feel qualified to provide on her own.
“I have seen such a dramatic change in my grandson’s interactions with other children and his cognitive abilities have exploded,” Webley said. “I have seen nothing but wondrous things come out of this program.”
Bullock’s Education Policy Advisor Siri Smillie, said 60% of children at the pilot preschools throughout the state are special needs children who are from low-income households, homeless, in foster care, are from tribes, or would have otherwise required an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
The preschools are helping these kids get a stronger start in school, which will help with future scholastic performance and that is a benefit for everyone.
Rewerts said that school readiness is a social justice issue. “Kids age out of Head Start at age five,” she said. “If parents need childcare, and the kids can’t go to Head Start, or if parents don’t have the resources, they have to start kindergarten as young five-year-olds and they stay behind forever. The preschool helps level the playing field a bit.”
After the roundtable discussion, Bullock and his staff visited the preschool and met the children. He got down on the floor to play with the students, read a story to the class, and viewed the various play areas of the room.
“Mel has set up a great learning environment for the kiddos,” Smillie said.
When asked why he feels it’s important to visit his pilot program’s classrooms, Bullock said, “It’s important because you see these young learners getting so excited and so kindergarten-ready. As we heard from the parents, kids are getting this enriching experience,” Bullock said. “I’m really impressed with what I’ve gotten to see here.”
On the morning of the governor’s visit, one of the class’s eggs hatched a baby chick and one of the caterpillars became a butterfly, a serendipitous set of events that helped to showcase just some of the reasons why Morrison’s preschool is so special.
The pilot preschools compile statistics and conduct assessments to provide evidence of student growth. There will be data to show legislators, but Bullock’s visits give him a first-hand glimpse into the lives that the program is helping change for the better.
Though Troy is only one part of the whole, if its impact has been similarly reflected across the state, Bullock hopes that the pilot program can morph into permanent, free, and universal preschools in Montana. Rewerts and Francom told Bullock that there is no way financially that the school can continue the preschool if funding stops.
Teacher Roesler-Begalke was thrilled to have the governor visit.
“Today we were able to say, ‘Look what we did with what you gave us,’” she said. “I think we’ve done a really great job. I really think Governor Bullock believes in this. I think because of his visits to all the preschools, he is going to be able to go to the legislature and say, ‘This makes a difference.’”