A group of Montana lawmakers dressed in dark suits with official name tags looked out of place in Whittier Elementary’s brightly colored preschool classroom.

The Education Interim Committee of the Montana Legislature gathered before class started. Principal Craig Kitto and teacher Hannah Gullickson fielded questions from the legislators representing every corner of the state, like how the pre-K program works, how the district pays for it and what kind of difference it makes for students.

Whittier and Hyalite Elementary are the only public schools in Bozeman to offer full-day preschool. Kids from low income households are targeted first for acceptance into the program and then spots are open on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s paid for through a federal grant.

Gullickson told the lawmakers that having had a year of preschool makes a world of difference for kids entering kindergarten.

This is the type of feedback lawmakers are looking for. The Legislature tasked the interim committee with finding best practices to enhance student well-being across the state, and working those ideas into policies the lawmaking body will consider next session. Creating a statewide public preschool has been under review by the Legislature and governor’s office for years but has yet to gain enough support to become state law.

The committee spent all of Thursday morning touring educational programs around town.

The group met with educators at Bozeman High School to learn about how competency-based curriculum is used at Bridger Charter Academy, an alternative program for high schoolers. They also heard about how the school district uses trauma-based approaches in its classrooms.

Johanna Bertken, student assistance coordinator at the high school, spoke about how traumatic events and stress alter and influence a child’s psychological development, and how educators can best respond to subsequent behavior changes. She said simple changes in language can make a big difference, like asking a child, “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”

Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, said during an afternoon committee meeting that she found the tours to be informative and wanted to learn more about how these programs can be incorporated all over Montana.

“I was really impressed with everything we’ve seen today. One thing that stood out was the trauma-informed approach,” McClafferty said.

At the committee’s meeting at Montana State University, lawmakers heard from the MSU College of Education about efforts to fill teaching positions with quality educators in rural areas. The Legislature has attempted in the past to encourage teacher recruitment and retention in small towns, like through a loan repayment program for educators who choose to work in rural districts.

Professor Ann Ewbank told the committee about an MSU online master’s program that allows people to earn a teaching graduate degree remotely. The idea is that someone living in rural Montana who wants to become a teacher can get a degree and transition into a local district without having to move to Bozeman or Missoula.

“We know that ‘grow-your-own solutions’ can be really beneficial, especially in rural places,” Ewbank said.

Later, the committee heard from researchers and coordinators at the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery and its work with the Youth Aware of Mental Health (YAM) Program. The YAM program aims to teach students how to recognize and talk about mental illness, and how they can get help. YAM has been taught at 30 high schools around the state by MSU Extension agents.

Ruth Weissman, a researcher at the center, said the hope is that educating students about mental health will reduce suicide and suicidal ideation and promote general mental health wellness. The center conducted a survey that found nearly 90% of students thought having a mental health education program in school was a good idea after participating in YAM.

Jenna Rahn, a Helena Capital High School junior, spoke to the committee about her experience taking part in YAM. She said she learned about signs and indicators of mental illness that she hadn’t known about before.

“It really helped provide more information on what mental health looks like. We all hear about anxiety and depression in school, but we learned what that looks like,” Rahn said.

Lawmakers also got a chance to learn about efforts to increase financial literacy among college students taking out loans for school, and about financial aid and support services for veterans.

During a public comment period, Bozeman School Board Trustee Douglas Fischer said he was glad to hear about the issues the committee is considering. He said he has seen students struggle with mental health and wondered how the district could have intervened.

“I’m really grateful to have this committee focused on mental health in education,” Fischer said.

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.

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