While Gov. Steve Bullock travels the state pitching his plan for making pre-kindergarten available to all 4-year-old Montanans, he should stop in Lockwood to see what a difference pre-K makes for kids.

In December of 2012, Lockwood Schools scraped together enough general fund money to hire one teacher and offer pre-K to 20 students in the spring semester. Parents voluntarily applied for the limited slots. Students attended every other day.

In December 2013, the district received 34 applications and enrolled 24 student in the spring pre-K program. The criteria for selection were low scores on pre-K academic screening and low family income.

Among the 24 students, all scored low or very low academically in December. When school was out in June, half of them tested above the academically proficient level, and the rest had moved closer to proficiency.

“We’re excited for Gov. Bullock’s proposal,” said Tobin Novasio, Lockwood superintendent. “We would like to run a year-long program. Some kids need a year-long program. Others could attend one trimester.”

“We’re proud of it,” Novasio said. “It was kind of a leap of faith with our board. And the LEA (Lockwood Education Association) was great to work with.” The teachers’ union agreed to some pre-K teacher flexibility that wasn’t written into the contract.

Eric Swartzkopf taught spring pre-K after doing her student teaching in a special intervention kindergarten classroom in the fall. This fall, Swartzkopf will teach kindergarten.

The pre-K doesn’t compete with Head Start, which has two classrooms in the Lockwood School building – and a long waiting list. Rather, pre-K served students who didn’t get into Head Start. In fact, Kathy Kelker, then director of Billings area Head Start, helped Lockwood set up its pre-K program.

Little leaders shine

Mike Bowman, Lockwood Primary School principal, hopes there will again be enough money for a pre-K program in the spring. He won’t know until the budget is finished in August.

“Our experience has been wonderful,” Bowman said. “It’s been very successful.”

Without pre-K, students who aren’t prepared for kindergarten arrive in August not knowing how to act in a big school, in a classroom, lunch room or playground with a group.

“They start out behind and they tend to stay behind,” Bowman said. “When we catch them (in pre-K) they become little leaders because they know what school is like and they shine.”

Montana is one of only eight states that is making no significant investment in pre-kindergarten, Bullock told The Gazette editorial board last week. In the 2013 session, Bullock proposed making the state’s first investment in early childhood education and the Legislature approved $2 million for the Stars to Quality program in the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Budget proposal coming

Bullock said his next biennial budget proposal will include a plan to offer pre-K taught by accredited teachers to all Montana 4-year-olds, but he has not said how much it will cost or how he intends to fund it.

As he has in presentations to Montana business groups, Bullock stressed the tremendous return on investing in the youngest citizens. A dollar invested in quality early childhood education returns $7 in future savings, he said.

That’s because children who participate in quality pre-K are less likely to drop out of school, abuse drugs, become teenage parents or go to jail.

There is no question that high-quality early childhood education provides the best start for little ones. Bullock has taken on the important task of figuring out how to offer that critical opportunity to all Montana’s children.


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