The Billings Head Start Explorers Academy welcomed preschool students for their first day at a new location on Tuesday. 

Four-year-olds filtered into the former Holy Rosary Catholic Church on Custer Avenue, which the local branch of the federal preschool program purchased last year

The building holds about 80 students across five classrooms, but also has child care before and after school. 

"Our primary goal, in addition to child care, is to help families move toward financial stability," said program director Jennifer Owen. "Most, if not all, (parents) are working full time or going to school or both." 

Head Start is the primary public preschool program in Montana. Billings' program has changed in recent years, moving from half-days to full-days, adding slots and becoming part of the state's pilot preschool program — STARS

Kindergarten readiness

A list in Shelly Dunbar's classroom at Meadowlark Elementary has nothing to do with counting or learning letters. Instead, two columns split into "share" and "don't share" categories. 

Dunbar and other kindergarten teachers said that their students struggle most with non-academic parts of school — and that those struggles can ripple through student's academic performance as they grow. 

"More than any other grade, there's a huge range of children," said Kristin Burckley. Some can't hold a pencil. Some can read. Some struggle to work with peers. 

Preschool, they said, serves an important role in preparing students for kindergarten. And research backs the idea up — in urban and rural areas and for kids from rich and poor backgrounds. 

A trio of veteran teachers spoke with Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday. Bullock has championed public preschool, and pushed to get funding for the STARS program. 

The legislature allocated $6 million over two years, much lower than previous preschool funding asks. Montana and other Mountain West states have resisted publicly funding preschool even as the idea has bridged ideological lines in other states. 

The kindergarten teachers said that the education system is asking more of younger students academically. 

"If they came in with half of their letters, we were good to go," said kindergarten teacher Kerry Foltz-Astle, talking about when she began teaching first grade 25 years ago. Students are now expected to have basic reading skills entering first grade. 

If students start out far behind, that makes it tough to catch up. 

"A year's growth for one child isn't going to get them where they need to be," Foltz-Astle said. 

When asked for suggestions about what a preschool program should focus on, the teacher returned to the list in Dunbar's room — basic social and behavioral skills, which would help give kids the chance to learn academic skills. 

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