Children sat in eight seats at a breakfast table in Joliet's Head Start preschool classroom. They served themselves oranges, pancakes, yogurt and milk, practicing table manners and fine motor skills. 

Paxton Wilm talked about his race car bed. Greyson Fjell talked about his two dogs at home. Kaitlin Severson, after successfully filling her plate, twice dipped her elbow into her yogurt.

“Again?” she said. “Why did this happen again?”

Head Start, a federally funded preschool and family aid program primarily for low-income families, has limited seats.

How to spread them out among Yellowstone, Carbon and Stillwater counties has been a difficult question for officials in Billings to answer.

The Billings-based program will be closing classrooms in Joliet and Red Lodge, citing a needs assessment study that shows more demand for services in parts of Yellowstone County. The closures are part of a larger trend across Montana in which Head Start programs have trouble meeting unyielding federal standards while serving small, remote communities, many of which have few other resources for children's academic, social and emotional development. 

Head Start Inc., which serves the three-county area, uses Billings' North Park location as its urban base, with 259 seats. It currently operates two other satellite sites — Lockwood and Laurel, with 34 seats each. Joliet's 18 seats and Red Lodge's 15 seats will be moved to areas targeting higher demand. Two of those areas are Billings and Laurel, which have grown especially quickly.

“There’s more need in just that small area than all of Carbon County,” said Billings Head Start Executive Director Jennifer Owen. “It’s not unlimited funding. We have choices that are hard to make, but we also have expectations we have to meet.

“That’s really hard when you’re thinking about 3- and 4-year-olds.”

Greatest need

Other Head Start programs around the state have closed satellite sites over the past several years and moved those seats to sites in higher-demand areas. A Bozeman-area Head Start program closed a classroom in Gallatin Gateway about two years ago, while two sites in northwest Montana were consolidated to one about five years ago. 

“(Federal officials) expect you to serve where the greatest need is,” said Ken Miller, executive director for Bozeman’s Head Start program.

That’s little consolation to some parents in smaller communities.

April Morgan has a son in the Joliet program. She recently resigned from the Head Start Policy Council, an elected group of parents that, according to the Head Start website, holds “equal power to the Board of Directors.”

She said she understands that other communities would benefit from Head Start services.

“I certainly don’t debate that,” she said. “What I don’t understand, as a mother, is why would you take from my child to give to (another community)?”

Morgan, who lives in Fromberg, plans to send her son to a private preschool provider in Fromberg next year.

“There are other kids that are going to fall through the cracks,” she said. “It’s sad for a community that will suffer.”

She also took issue with what she said was a lack of input from the policy council on the decision.

Rural challenges

The structure of federal requirements leaves the Head Start program with little wiggle room. Programs have to meet target enrollments for each classroom they operate. Ten percent of enrolled children can be exempt from income requirements, but most need to be from low-income families. Children can be bused in, but not from more than an hour away. 

If programs can’t fill their slots, or overfill them, “you would be put under the microscope almost immediately,” Owen said. For Joliet and Red Lodge, she said the program has been heavily recruiting to fill seats. With no flexibility and little margin of error with small populations, changes could put a classroom in jeopardy. 

“That’s tough on rural areas," said Ravalli County Head Start Executive Director John Filz. "It just is.”

Not every program has run into trouble. Ravalli, which serves Missoula and the outlying area, hasn't closed sites in recent years, though demand is concentrated in Missoula. And officials in Glendive said that demand has remained strong even as the Bakken boom wanes. 

Neither federal nor state authorities could provide a list of classroom sites for previous years, and publicly available reports don’t cite specific locations. But Billings is at least the third program to close a center related to enrollment struggles in recent years.

“We just ran out of qualifying students,” Bozeman's Executive Director Miller said of the Gallatin Gateway closure. “It’s a relatively small population there. It doesn’t take much, (with) the demographic shift, to change things.”

Officials for Northwest Montana Head Start closed a center in Whitefish about six years ago and another in Martin City about four years ago. A new classroom was created in Columbia Falls, about a 15-minute drive from the two previous locations.

In Martin City, the school district also shut down.

“The community has changed to not have near as many young families because they just can’t sustain themselves in the area,” said Northwest Montana Head Start Executive Director Renee Funk.

“It’s not that those (remaining) children don’t deserve the services just as much as any other child,” she said. “But you might be able to service 18 children in an area for the same cost."

Northwest Montana also operates classrooms in Eureka and Kalispell, which serves as the local population center — with about 21,000 people, the area has a waiting list of about 120 children. Eureka, with just more than 1,000 people, is more than an hour from Kalispell. Martin City is only 35 minutes away, but has only about 300 people. 

“They look at us from Washington, D.C.; they don’t understand the ruralness of our program,” Funk said.

Compared to some sites, Red Lodge is a metropolis, with about 2,200 people. But it's still an hour away from Billings. 

Learning to learn

When kids leave Head Start, they’re typically expected to know most of their ABC’s, numbers up to 20 and days of the week. They should be able to identify plants, animals, types of weather and patterns.

What might be more important is learning how to learn. Students who already have learned to raise their hands, to follow instructions, or to write with a pencil all have a leg up when entering kindergarten. Working well with their peers, and with adults, is an important part of functioning in a classroom environment. 

In Joliet, as Head Start student Kaitlin prepared her spot at the breakfast table, she reminded teaching assistant Patti Jam, “well, I’m still little."

“You’re little, but you’re four,” Jam said.

A growing body of research shows that early grades are critical; if reading and math skills aren’t on grade level by third grade, students likely never will catch up.

“They say that kindergarten is the new first grade,” Owen said, citing higher academic expectations.

Students also learn social and emotional skills in groups. It can be difficult for children to find peers in small communities.

“That’s something we hear from parents a lot,” Jam said. “'I want them to make a friend; I want them to learn to play with other children.’”

Moving forward

The assessment report that helped spark the Carbon County closures notes the importance of family outreach.

“Head Start does provide a valuable service both in the services it provides to its children and families and in its work to identify and refer families to needed services,” it says. “This critical service Head Start provides is needed at every site, but it probably is more critical in the more rural areas, since fewer substitutes and access points to services are available.”

Owen emphasized that the closures aren’t related to a funding decrease, but several officials said that federal funding hasn’t kept pace with demand for services.

“If there were enough money, you’d never have a waiting list,” said Kathy Kelker, a former Head Start director and current state legislator.

Billings' current waiting list has a handful of students at each satellite site, and 56 for the North Park location. The two students on the waiting list for Joliet and five for Red Lodge are all from over-income families, Owen said. 

Owen said that Head Start hopes to partner with organizations in Red Lodge to help offer some kind of services, and the group is looking at opening another classroom in Laurel, which Joliet students could travel by bus to attend. However, travel from communities like Red Lodge or Bridger, especially during the winter, would be difficult.

Elizabeth Fisher, who has a child at Head Start in Lockwood, sits on the policy council. She said that at first she was wary of plans to close Red Lodge and Joliet. Now she agrees with the program’s reasoning.

But she still understands why families would be angry about losing their site.

“There are still families out there in need,” she said. “I really hope that they can find a way to work this out.”