Kountry Kare sticks out along Highway 312, where the suburbs of Billings give way to ranches. There’s clearly demand in the area for child care; two other providers dot the road to nearby Shepherd High School.
The private child care facility has rated in Montana's preschool quality ranking system for years. But it’s now one of seven private preschool providers where the state has sent public money for the first time.
Kountry Kare received a STARS grant, part of Montana's $6 million, two-year effort to expand access to high-quality preschool. It offered money to private and public preschool programs toward tuition costs, teacher training and other requirements.
“We have a lot of those things, so they weren’t extra things on our plate,” said Mandy Berens, Kountry Kare’s owner.
As a participant in the state’s rating system, the facility incorporated many of the elements that experts consider essential for “high-quality preschool": its preschool teachers already had associate degrees in early childhood, followed a specific curriculum and used class-size standards.
Other parts were new, like extended hours: the previous program was three days per week, three hours per day. Now the four-year-old program runs five days a week, six hours per day.
Berens said she doesn’t view the program’s requirements as “strings attached.”
For STARS grants, staff-child ratios must be at 1-10, classes must use a research-based curriculum that aligns with state standards for early learning, and programs must run at least 28 hours per week. Public schools must have licensed teachers, and private program teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree with 20 early childhood credits.
Private programs enroll a little more than one-third of the roughly 300 students in STARS programs, and receive about one-third of the grant money disbursed to providers.
Teacher Jorden Gilfeather worked with a student who had been pulled from the group sitting on a rug. The student was asked to select which paper person was dressed appropriately for the cold, snowy weather outside.
When the child picked a figure without a hat and gloves, Gilfeather asked the larger group: “Would that be warm enough to go play outside?”
Kountry Kare, down to the moniker, tries to provide a rural climate for kids.
A poster listing “bucket fillers” — good experiences and attributes — had anecdotes from kids.
“I helped daddy rope the steers,” one said.
When teaching the letter R, five or six students brought a rope for an activity about objects that started with the letter. A Veterans Day activity was particularly well-received by parents.
“That’s our community, and it’s kind of fun to be able to teach that standpoint,” Gilfeather said.
For Gilfeather and fellow teacher Stacey Hein, the transition to a longer program has been welcome.
“We’re not as rushed to teach them in a short amount of time,” Gilfeather said.
Kountry Kare has a class of 20 that is jointly taught, with both women serving as lead teachers.
“We’re not ever one of us feeling like there’s too much work,” Hein said.
The program had a strong demand and cut off its wait list at 10, Gilfeather said.
Publicly funded preschool has critics, like dozens of Republican legislators, including current Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who signed a letter urging rejection of the $40 million federal grant in 2015.
One of the arguments in the letter was that public programs would undermine existing private providers.
Research on the effect of publicly funded preschool on private providers isn’t conclusive. One study found that private programs increased in Georgia and held steady in Oklahoma as publicly funded programs rolled out. Total enrollment in preschool rose significantly in both states.
The study notes that different funding mechanisms, geographic characteristics, differences in existing providers and other variables can make comparisons difficult from state to state.
Berens, who said she’d like to see the STARS grants continue beyond two years, doesn’t buy it.
“There’s such a need for it. We’ve got waiting lists in every classroom,” she said. “It wouldn’t hurt us.”