Sacajawea Park became a mini construction hub Saturday.

Volunteers put together art centers, which will be donated to area preschools. It's part of a multi-day effort to create and install projects at 14 Missoula County preschools.

TOMMY MARTINO photos, Missoulian
Michelle Voigt helps put together art centers, which will be donated to preschools in the area, during the build on Saturday at Sacajawea Park. The project is part of a multi-day effort to create and install projects at 14 Missoula County preschools.

Healthy Start Missoula received a $10,000 grant from the Montana Preschool Development Grant, $4,000 of which went to these preschool projects. The other $6,000 supported the coordinator's salary for year-round activities, said Healthy Start Missoula coordinator Anna Semple.

The Montana Preschool Development Grant comes from the $10 million U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services Preschool Development Grant that the state received in December 2014, renewable for four years to total $40 million.

Montana is one of eight states that doesn't fund preschool. The others include Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire and Indiana (though Indiana's is currently in progress), according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The federal grant is intended to "strengthen state and local efforts to build, develop and expand high-quality preschool programs so that more children from low- and moderate-income families enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school," according to HHS.

Missoula County was not part of the state's grant disbursement. In the original grant announcement, Gov. Steve Bullock said the funding would go to 16 high-needs communities. Semple said this funding came to Healthy Start Missoula through Missoula's Best Beginnings Council, one of 20 coalitions statewide that work on increasing coordination across child services.

"Our early childhood Best Beginnings Coalition decided what do we need to do to best support preschools, and tangible support to their playground areas to help enhance that, because it's a pretty tight finance situation for a lot of those businesses, is really helping them enrich the lives of the 4-year-olds that are getting to utilize it," Semple said. "And then also we want to just raise awareness about the needs and complexities of running a preschool."

The common misconception, Semple said, is that preschool is less about education and more about childcare.

"People think preschool is like babysitting, and it’s really an art," she said. "It takes a lot of skill, and there’s a lot of complexity to running one and teaching in one."

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It's not cheap, either.

"People can be paying $800 a month sometimes for their child to go to childcare, sometimes less. But it’s always hundreds," Semple said. "But they (preschools) also want to pay their staff well enough that they have well-educated, well-trained staff, and that’s a really tight balance. If you don’t pay your staff well enough, you have a lot of turnover, but if you raise their salary too much, the rates go up for parents."

She described the volunteers' efforts – outdoor art and music centers, raised garden beds, wood chips on playgrounds and painting rooms – as "small tokens."

"But people were literally jumping up and down when they found out they were getting these $200 projects for their centers," she said.

The projects snagged help from the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, United Way Day of Action volunteers, discounts and technical support from local businesses, the University of Montana Office for Civic Engagement, and high school volunteers.

Volunteers Svein Newman and Fred Kellner came to the park Saturday morning to help finish the art centers.

"Creativity's really important for developing minds and the more you can do to help Missoulians get a strong start early in life, the better off our community is," Newman said. "I think early education is important. I think evidence pretty strongly shows that young brains develop fast, right? So we need to be supporting people from an early age and giving them a solid foundation to learn and grow and live healthy, productive lives."

Semple was wary to advocate either way on the issue of publicly-funded preschool, as she's a county employee. She focused on one fact: Montana doesn't fund preschool.

"I think you can see the pinch that that can put on families," she said.

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The multimillion-dollar federal preschool grant is independent of Bullock's Early Edge initiative, a $37 million preschool allocation request to offer state block grants to public school districts wanting to establish or expand a preschool program. But last spring, Early Edge was left out when legislators finalized the state budget. 

Last fall, about 50 GOP state legislators signed a letter, calling on Montana's congressional delegation to turn down the $40 million in Preschool Development Grant funding, saying that the "creation of government-provided 'free' preschools will most certainly drive existing private preschools from the market." They argued that the grants "come with a litany of federal requirements" and that the high-quality requirement is "insulting" to private providers.

"Developing bodies and brains need all the help they can get, so it seems kind of crazy that the state doesn’t help support preschool at some level," Kellner said.

"At the end of the day, it's about helping kids, right? And politics shouldn't get in the way of that," Newman said. "We all do better when we all do better. If we can help invest in kids today, then we're going to have to invest in a lot less things tomorrow."

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