Uncertain future for ensuring children’s futures: Libby preschool program could end next year without new funding

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Entering the new legislative session, Libby Public Schools is looking to the State Capitol for the decision of whether or not there will be a preschool in Libby next school year.

Libby Public Schools Superintendent Craig Barringer said he will be trying to get state legislators to understand the value of the preschool program not just to Libby as it is now, but as it will be in the future.

Working in cooperation with Kootenai Valley Head Start, the Plummer Preschool has shown significant results over the past almost four years.

In 2013, 61 percent of all students entering Libby Elementary School were testing as ready to start kindergarten, according to figures from Barringer. In 2017, that number rose to 85 percent.

Since the preschool and Head Start began working together, they have averaged 90 percent of students testing ready for kindergarten. Among children with no pre-kindergarten education, that number is around 50 percent.

Barringer also noted the added importance of the stability the school provides for the growing number of children in foster care or who are considered homeless due to their home life situation.

Recent research has indicated that a child who is behind as early as 1st grade may struggle through the rest of their educational career, Barringer said.

By investing in early educational programs, there is potential to avoid higher costs in the future, Barringer noted. Children given the benefit of early education are less likely to fall into a position where they are either dependent on the government or involved in criminal activity.

In an interview in March, Plummer Preschool teacher Judy Graham — who has three decades of experience as an educator — said that she believes in the work she does.

“When I moved to kindergarten, and the kids came to us, there was a huge gap, the haves and the have nots,” she said. “Basically it was just those that had exposure — parents had exposed their kids to learning.”

Among the graphs that Barringer prepared to plead the case for funding preschools such as Libby’s is one that shows the impact of education at various ages on long term success. The rate of return for investment in educating children under 3 years old shows as nearly double that once they are in regular school.

For many children, that education begins in a nurturing household, but the sheet from Barringer includes a quote from Chandi Wagner, NSBA Center for Public Education, who stated that children from impoverished households hear “about 30 million fewer words by age 4 than their wealthier counterparts.”

Graham’s experience showed her how important it is to have children with something to build on when they reach kindergarten, she said.

“Their foundation is so much stronger, so as they’re going on in their educational career, hopefully that foundation will hold up for them,” she said.

Paying for it

However, Libby Public Schools are in the fourth and final year of the Montana Preschool Development Grant, which funds the preschool.

The schools are looking at all available options, from shutting down the program and potentially laying off staff that can not be integrated elsewhere into the schools, to outside funding, Barringer said.

Yet, with an estimated cost of $200,000, Barringer does not consider it realistic that the preschool could be continued through use of the schools’ general fund.

There are simply too many other needs already taxing the general fund, and those only look likely to increase.

Still, according to the data Barringer has compiled, early childhood education can create a 12-16 percent return for the larger society those children grow up in.

Some of that is not simply in the obvious benefits of students who are better prepared to absorb educational materials.

Barringer pointed out that, depending on their background, some children may start school never having before sat at a table at a regular mealtime. They may have never even used utensils to eat.

Simply developing the social skills most people take for granted can have a big impact on not only how well children integrate into a school system, but can head off future behavior issues — a problem Barringer said is growing in local schools.

Whether parents don’t have the time to spend focused on their child’s early education, or even if they lack some of the skills to help their child, early childhood education helps to span that gap for those children to keep them up with their classmates.

For now, Barringer has compiled information on the Libby program and its successes — as well as the generally-known benefits of early childhood education — and submitted them to the Governor’s Office and local legislators. From there, it’s a matter of waiting to see how the debate progresses at the Capitol, and whether the current temporary grant solutions will be replaced by something more permanent.

According to a policy paper by the Education Commission of the States, Montana is one of only six states that does not publicly fund preschool education.

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