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ALBERTON — Sue Dallapiazza started as Alberton’s first-ever preschool teacher with only a few days to buy supplies, set up a room and build a program.

“White, blank walls. There was nothing there. We had to go buy everything. We worked hard, didn’t we, Kim?” Dallapiazza said, standing amid a flurry of five 4- and 5-year olds as she turned to paraeducator Kim Garding during a Thursday tour of the school by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

“It was fast,” she agreed. “Two days?”

Principal Kyle Fisher said, “Honestly, it was a storage room before. If you didn’t want something, you threw it in here.”

On Thursday, the corner room featured whiteboards and posters on the wall, bright carpets with the alphabet, child-sized chairs and tables, and shelves with photos taped next to the word labels so students would know which toys and supplies went where.

“They can’t read yet so they have to know where everything goes,” Dallapiazza said, pointing to a boy as he returned a box of toys to its right place. “See? They become independent.”

Alberton's first preschool is thanks to a two-year, $85,000 STARS grant from the state. Bullock visited the rural school west of Missoula this week to celebrate the state program intended to serve as a test for future expansion.

This spring, the governor and fellow Democrats in the Legislature negotiated with Republicans to approve a new, one-time fee on the state’s largest hospitals that would fund the $3 million pilot project. It was a hard-fought compromise reached in a tight budget year, and some Republicans expressed skepticism about the need for statewide, state-funded preschool.

“What I hope is that we learn the lesson 46 other states have already learned,” Bullock said. “These are investments we cannot afford not to make.”

Advocates point to research that shows quality early education programs improve the long-term success of students, including their likelihood to read at grade level and graduate from high school.

Supporters also argue that public preschool can level the playing field for families who cannot afford the high costs of private programs. Bullock’s office reports that the average cost of child care — let alone an education-focused preschool — is $7,900 a year for a 4-year-old, or about 17 percent of the state’s median family income.  

Part of the opposition to funding statewide preschool in Montana stemmed, in part, from a view “that this is, like, my priority,” Bullock said.

“The last legislative session we had Republican governors from Mississippi, Nevada and Oklahoma write to our legislative committees saying here’s why they’re investing in it. We had the secretary of education of Alabama come out,” he said. “This (pilot project) will afford us the opportunity to really demonstrate both the need and the impact in a rural state like ours.”

Almost 50 school districts applied for the grants and 17 were awarded funding to serve about 300 kids ages 4 or 5. Ten programs used the money to expand the capacity of existing programs. Seven school districts — Alberton, Polson, Helena, Lolo, Marion, Ronan and Troy — will use the support to offer general education preschool for the first time to families who want to participate.

“Our parents, our kids didn’t have the opportunity,” Alberton Superintendent Steve Picard said. “We don’t have a Head Start preschool or even a private preschool. We’re very fortunate to receive this opportunity and we’re going to take full advantage.”

It is a 10-mile drive to the nearest program in Huson, although that one was always full, so parents’ only other options were in Missoula, 30 miles away. About a quarter of children within the district boundaries live below the federal poverty line and about three-quarters qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfast, a level high enough under federal rules that the district provides free meals to all students.

The per capita income of $22,619 is less than the state average and most families have two working parents, making it a fiscal challenge and practical impossibility for many to enroll their children in out-of-town preschools.

So far, five students have enrolled for the voluntary program, but Fisher expects the class size could double in the weeks ahead as more families learn about it.

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He hopes the class can better prepare the kids to start kindergarten. Children from families who can afford preschool or are close enough to enroll in a Head Start program often start public school able to recognize letters and numbers, know the primary colors and write their name. Quality programs also focus on developing fine motor skills, like properly holding a pencil or using scissors, and social skills critical for classroom success, such as standing in line, sitting quietly to listen, or taking turns.

Fisher noted that expectations in today’s kindergarten classrooms are more similar to the first grade experiences of previous generations.

“We have kids going into kindergarten who don’t know their letters, don’t even recognize their name on a paper,” he said.

If some students do not have the right foundational skills, they can become frustrated when they cannot keep up with peers, setting the tone for the rest of their educational career, said Dallapiazza, who ran a preschool class for Missoula Catholic Schools before joining Alberton.

“Some kids have had preschool and some haven’t,” she said. “This way we can give everybody that opportunity.”

Fisher said receiving the grant earlier this summer, “made my year, my career” and is eager to see the improvements that carry forward with students each year.

“It’d be sad to get it all set up and then to lose the funding,” he said as he walked Bullock out the door.

“We’re counting on you all to be the voice of it,” the governor said, calling on school districts to advocate for preschool funding in the 2019 legislative session. “To say, ‘Here’s what we did, here’s what we experienced and here’s why it should be important for other communities, large and small.’”

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