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Denise Juneau

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau visits with a preschool classroom at Ray Bjork Learning Center in the IR file photo. 

HELENA - As a Head Start graduate herself, Denise Juneau knows first-hand how a high quality education for preschoolers can change a life.

As Office of Public Instruction superintendent, she and her staff have taken a lead role in bringing in $40 million in federal grant money to expand free preschool options to more Montana children.

Montana is one of 18 states that received a federal grant to develop high quality public preschool programs, and is now in its second year of the four-year federal grant.

In the first year (2015-16), funding was focused on 16 Montana communities and benefited 650 children from low-to-moderate income families, according to an OPI press release.

On Thursday, Juneau visited a Ray Bjork Learning Center preschool classroom, which is a partnership between the Head Start Program and the Helena Public Schools. She used the visit as a perfect setting to announce that this coming year, the federal grant will reach children in 34 communities, including: Anaconda, Browning, Heart Butte, Butte, Lewistown, Roundup, Harlowton, Crow Agency, Lodge Grass, Pryor, St. Ignatius, Ronan, Pablo, Arlee, Hays-Lodge Pole, Harlem, Wolf Point, Frazer, Poplar, Great Falls, Hardin, Bozeman, Livingston, Belgrade, Kalispell, Libby, Troy, Eureka, Boulder, Helena, East Helena, Whitehall, Townsend and Rocky Boy.

“It’s good for our state,” said Juneau, “because we are one of nine states without state-funded preschool. I know there was a proposal last session (to publicly fund preschool) that wasn’t successful. Maybe we’ll see something again this session.”

Juneau also released “The Montana Early Learning Roadmap: A Community Framework” on Thursday.

The roadmap gives examples of what some communities have done to boost their preschool programs and make them more vibrant. It also builds on what’s been successful in Graduation Matters communities.

Graduation Matters communities have seen a boost in graduation rates, said Juneau, and now they want to see “preschool be part of their education program."

“We know when children are attending preschool, they’re more likely to graduate from high school,” said Juneau.

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Children who don’t attend preschool are 25 percent more likely to drop out of high school, according to an OPI factsheet.

Preschool-age children are ready to learn. Ninety percent of brain development happens before a child is 5 years old, according to research shared by OPI.

“We know when students are attending a high quality preschool and they are learning the skills necessary to step into kindergarten, they’re going to be much more successful in elementary school,” said Juneau. Not only are they more likely to graduate from high school, but “they’re more likely to be successful adults because they’re getting those skills early on.”

Families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level or who are eligible for special education, could qualify to attend these public preschool programs. For a family of four, 200 percent of poverty is an annual income of $60,625.

The average cost of childcare for a Montana 4-year-old is more than $7,500, according to OPI.

For more information, visit http://opi.mt.gov/.

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Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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