Discovery Place Child Care

DeAnn Jones photographs her pre-kindergarten class on a recent trip to Chief Joseph Middle School.

A new report finds that Montana’s first-year experiment in publicly funded preschool for 4-year-olds has been successful, and Bozeman’s participating preschool teacher couldn’t agree more.

“We think it’s going great,” said DeAnn Jones, who operates Discovery Place Child Care near Chief Joseph Middle School. “We love it.”

Jones is so proud of her school, she has invited legislators to visit with parents Thursday to show what kids are learning. Recently while studying buildings, her kids did some problem solving when they made cardboard box buildings — and added holes in the roof to make sure Santa could enter.

What’s great about the state’s STARS program is that it requires schools to choose a high-quality curriculum to guide kids’ learning, Jones said. After researching five different options, she picked Creative Curriculum, the same one used at Montana State University, and feels it’s “wonderful.”

And from the parents’ point of view, she added, “You can’t argue with free preschool.”

Montana last year was one of only six states not offering publicly paid for, high-quality preschool.

Gov. Steve Bullock has been trying to persuade the Legislature for years to invest in young children’s education, arguing it can improve their chances of learning and succeeding in school, graduating and getting a job, staying out of prison and living healthier lives.

Bullock said in a press release he plans to ask again at the 2019 Legislature for money for publicly funded, high-quality early childhood education.

Last year the 2017 Legislature approved $6 million in one-time-only money for two years for a pilot program. Some 300 Montana children were enrolled in 17 preschools, both public and private, in city and rural settings. Another 300 kids were turned away or put on waiting lists.

The only STARS program in Bozeman was Jones’ Discovery Place, and it was the smallest in the first-year pilot program. It had only three 4-year-olds who qualified last year. This year, Jones said, she has a dozen 4-year-olds.

The 2018 STARS Preschool Evaluation Report found that in the first year, “Children who came from households with lesser income and education levels generally scored lower in the fall, but caught up to their peers at the end of the year.”

In fall testing, 77 percent of the 4-year-olds were found to be ready for kindergarten, while 23 percent were behind.

By the spring, 93 percent of kids tested as ready for school and only 7 percent were behind.

The report concluded that “year one data suggests that high-quality preschool through the STARS preschool program increases the likelihood that children are ready for kindergarten.”

However, one weakness of the first-year pilot was that there was no control group to compare how much progress 4-year-olds make without preschool. Another was that testing was done by state staff and teachers themselves, not impartial outside observers.

The report also found that:

--Over half the families would have struggled to afford childcare or preschool without the STARS program.

--Kids from single-parent homes nearly caught up to kids from two-parent homes in school readiness.

--Preschool teachers earned higher pay, averaging $21.51 an hour for a lead teacher and $11.91 for an auxiliary teacher, compared to median pay of $13.90 and $9.84 statewide.

--86 percent of teachers felt children’s outcomes improved because of using curriculum, yet kids still had time for play, interacting and meeting individual needs.

The program required kids be in preschool for 28 hours a week, or more than five hours a day, and that length was challenging for some programs and parents.

The report recommended continuing the pilot program another year with both public and private preschools, allowing more flexibility in school day lengths, and considering requiring licenses for preschools or setting health and safety standards.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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