Montana has received $10 million to bolster preschool and Head Start programs in high-needs communities.
The state is among 18 to win a preschool grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the agency announced Wednesday. Thirty-five states and Puerto Rico applied.
Federal awards totaling $226 million were given to states to either develop an early childhood education program or expand existing ones. Montana, one of eight states that does not fund public preschool, received a development grant that is renewable over four years, for a total of $40 million.
A handful of Montana communities do have their own preschools, and many offer federal Head Start. A majority of the funds will be used to add slots for children of low- to moderate-income families in those programs, helping prepare them for kindergarten, state officials said.
"These are really to expand the programs we have been working with," said Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Students who attend high-quality preschool program tend to do better in school and are less likely to drop out or be incarcerated later in life, studies have shown.
Gov. Steve Bullock, who has made preschool funding a legislative priority, has also emphasized studies which suggest that every dollar invested in early childhood education can bring economic returns up to sevenfold.
Sixteen communities will receive support from the federal grant, eight of which are located on Indian reservations. About 6,000 4-year-olds will be served over four years, according to the Governor's office.
"It's important to remember, this is a first step," Bullock said.
Hardin School District will be among the first batch of participants to receive funds, said Jerry Guay, director of the district's Kindergarten Readiness Center.
The center includes three classrooms for 4-year-olds and another for 3-year-olds, with 58 students enrolled. It is funded through the district's K-12 budget and has been supplemented by a Striving Readers grant, which expires next year.
Hardin preschoolers have succeeded in high numbers since the program began a few years ago. About 85 percent of students finish the year at or above the benchmark, Guay said.
Guay said he doesn't know exactly how much the district will receive from the grant, but said it will help pay teacher salaries and may allow the program to update learning materials.
In addition to increasing access, a large portion of the grant will be used to enhance the existing programs through support and training.
Specifically, it will help them adapt to new state rules outlining preschool programs and teacher license standards that were adopted last month by the Board of Public Education. The rules are designed to ensure students in public preschool programs are prepared for kindergarten.
Guay said his district will be able to more smoothly transition to the new program standards with training provided by the grant.
Without the continued funds to pay for consultants, he said, "it would have taken us longer, and it would have been a much more painful experience than it's going to be."
About $500,000 each year also will be set aside for scholarships to help teachers meet new preparation standards also adopted by the board, Juneau said.
The grant, targeted in scope, is independent of the broader $37 million preschool allocation Bullock will request from the state Legislature.
That proposal, called Early Edge, would expand public preschool for 4-year-olds into communities which don't currently offer it.
Early Edge would make state funds available for any school district that wants to establish or expand voluntary preschool programs, either by partnering with private providers or building their own.
Juneau said other communities will be able to learn from the existing programs as they are strengthened over the next few years.
"I could see these schools serving as mentors for schools across the state," she said.
The award is part of more than $1 billion in federal grants and private investments announced by the White House to promote early childhood education across the country.
The White House held a Summit on Early Education on Wednesday with business leaders, philanthropists and advocates to build support for prekindergarten programs.