The new executive director for the Head Start program in Billings admits that working in education is new for him.
Jeremy Welch, who was picked to lead Explorer's Academy earlier in August, worked for years in human resources for Home Depot and then City Brew. It was work he said will serve him well at Head Start.
"At the end of the day, this is a business," he said.
But Welch has also experienced Head Start from a deeply personal side — he participated in the program as a child.
"This type of service changes a community and it changes a child's life," he said.
Head Start is the most far-reaching and stable public preschool program in Montana. The federally funded classrooms target students from low-income families that sometimes struggle with education later in life, and are more likely to benefit from quality preschool programs.
In Billings, the program enrolls 360 kids and has expanded recently, purchasing a new facility near Terry Park, rebranding itself as the Explorer's Academy, and adding tuition slots.
Welch said he views his first responsibility is building a stable foundation for that recent growth, before eyeing future expansion in three or four years.
That could address urban areas like Billings that consistently have long wait lists, or rural areas like Joliet and Red Lodge, where classrooms were eliminated in 2016 and the seats shifted closer to Billings.
Welch said the program hears consistent interest from the Joliet community in getting a classroom back.
"Do we want to do that? Yes," he said. "Can we do that tomorrow? No."
A significant change this year for the Billings Head Start is the elimination of busing for kids. Welch said the money was shifted to staffing.
He also emphasized that signing up for wait lists is still worth it for parents interested in Head Start, as the program cycles through dozens of students who leave each year.
Something that Welch is hoping to focus on this year is boosting parent involvement in the program, whether through volunteering or other events.
"I want parents to understand that they have a voice," he said.
Part of that push is about kids in the program; a robust body of research shows that when parents are invested in education, kids do well. But part of it is also about expanding Head Start's footprint in the community.
"Montana has been somewhat of a late adopter to the Head Start (model)," he said. "The role for me is to really make sure the community understands the impact these programs have."
That include legislators, he said. In 2019, legislators killed Montana's first state publicly funded preschool program. The Billings Head Start had hosted a classroom in the program. The state is again one of a few in the nation that doesn't have a publicly-funded preschool program.
Welch pointed to academic research showing Head Start returns more money to economies than it costs. He pointed to stringent federal quality standards, and to well-qualified educators with early childhood degrees.
He said it's important for him to lean on the educational experience of teachers and other administrative staff, but also their experience in setting a culture at Head Start — things as simple as putting extra time into preparing a classroom for the school year.
"They put nothing but passion and love into getting these things done," he said.