April 24--The East Helena school district is exploring the possibility of offering public preschool for 4-year-olds starting next fall. But after a potential partnership with the Rocky Mountain Development Council fell through, the program's life depends on finding funding.
The preliminary plan is to offer one classroom of full-day preschool for 18 students. The slots would target families who make too much money to qualify for federally funded Head Start but may still have difficulty affording private preschool, according to Jill Miller, principal of Eastgate Elementary where the class would be housed.
Ron Whitmoyer, superintendent of East Helena schools, said the district had hoped to partner with RMDC, which was one of several organizations around the state to receive a portion of the $10 million Preschool Development grant the U.S. Department of Education awarded to Montana last year. The funding partnership fell through on Thursday.
Whitmoyer said he's still hoping the district can offer preschool in the fall, but it depends on compiling money.
"We have to move cautiously to make sure there is sufficient funding to accomplish this goal," he said.
There's no set deadline for when the decision will be made, but Whitmoyer said on Thursday he was working on identifying funds. The East Helena school district did apply for grant funding to purchase supplies and curriculum materials, but Whitmoyer couldn't immediately remember when that grant would be announced.
Eastgate Elementary had eight kindergarten classes last year, but a decline in kindergarten enrollment could mean only seven are needed next year, Miller said. Funds that would have been used in that eighth classroom could be transferred to the preschool class, she said.
Though the funding partnership between East Helena and RMDC fell through, Miller said Eastgate is still making a classroom available for RMDC. Eastgate has one Head Start classroom now, and RMDC may use grant funds to open another preschool class.
If both classrooms open, it would mean 36 available spots for 4-year-olds. The RMDC-funded class would likely be available only to families making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty designation.
The East Helena schools sent out a survey to area families earlier this month to gauge community sentiment toward public preschool. Miller said so far about 40 responses have come in. She hasn't looked through them all, but said some parents reported concerns over how to get students to preschool if there was no transportation offered and concerns that a full day of school is too much for 4-year-olds.
Miller said a full-day schedule matches best with the rest of the school's timeline and would help kids prepare for future years.
"Honestly, I feel like a full-day program is the best way to address the learning needs of these students," she said.
Curriculum would be based on standards developed by the Board of Public Education last fall. Students' days would likely be full of play-based learning, thematic units and a lot of social-emotional learning, Miller said.
Miller said she is also searching for a teacher to hire. The teacher would need to be at least certified for elementary education and would need additional certification for preschool education within three years.
She hopes to have a framework developed by the end of next week and said anyone interested in keeping up on the news should watch the East Helena schools website.
Superintendent Whitmoyer said the district has considered offering public preschool for several years.
"What education gurus or education specialists say is it's like the last frontier," Whitmoyer said. "It's like a place that's an untapped resource for making a difference for kids."
The head of Rocky Mountain Development Council's Head Start did not immediately return a call.
(c)2015 Independent Record (Helena, Mont.)
Visit the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.) at www.helenair.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
© Tribune Content Agency, source Regional News