Alberton School’s pilot program shows benefits of state-funded preschool

Alberton preschooler Lillie Baughman, 4, inspects the structure she built during playtime. (Shaylee Ragar/UM Legislative News Service)

(UM Legislative News Service) In a nearly 100-year-old schoolhouse in Alberton, kids are preparing for kindergarten through one of 18 pilot preschool programs funded by the state of Montana.

On a bright February morning, Lillie Baughman, 4, used playtime to build a meticulous tower  with concentration and patience. The room was buzzing with eight preschool students running from activity to activity. Their teacher, Sue Dallapiazza, said the kids will have nap time after lunch, but said no one usually takes the opportunity to sleep.

“We have too much energy because we rest at home,” Baughman said.

This is the second year the public school has offered the state-funded STARS program. Gov. Steve Bullock has been asking Montana’s Legislature since 2015 to fully fund the program, but was only able to get $6 million in 2017, which funded 18 pilot programs, including the one in Alberton.

This legislative session, Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, is carrying House Bill 225, which would have the state pay $22 million for more schools to offer public preschool over the next two years. The program would be optional for 4-year-olds.

Public preschool programs have received support from both sides of the aisle, but again this session, there is disagreement on what a public preschool program should look like going forward and some lawmakers question whether the state can afford it. The governor’s office has proposed new taxes on things like hotel rooms, rental cars and liquor to generate more state revenue. Many Republicans have said new taxes are a non-starter.

Democrats argue that investing in early childhood education will save the state on safety-net social programs in the future. An at-risk youth becomes and at-risk adult, Schreiner said, and this program also aims to address that issue.

And, supporters say, preschool sets all children up for a successful start. In Alberton, with a population of about 430, the school’s enrollment from preschool through 12th grade is 141. There is no other daycare or preschool in town, which is a common for rural communities across Montana.

The Alberton schoolhouse will mark its 100th anniversary next year, and Principal Mica Clarkson hopes its preschool program will celebrate its third anniversary, as well. The school has a total enrollment of 141 students. (Shaylee Ragar/UM Legislative News Service)

Alberton resident Jamie Evans has a son, Levi, in 2nd grade who wasn’t able to attend preschool, so Evans homeschooled him before Kindergarten. Then the pilot program was implemented and her daughter, Amity, was enrolled last year.

Evans said the difference between the two is huge, and that her son has struggled in school more than her daughter.

Evans worked hard at home to engage her son in reading, and tried to teach him Spanish and sign language, but he was resistant. When her daughter started public preschool and was surrounded by peers, Evans said Amity “fell head over heels in love with reading and math.” She largely attributes the preschool program’s success to Dallapiazza.

“I have no words. Ms. D has been amazing,” Evans said.

Dallapiazza taught preschool for Missoula’s Catholic schools before starting at Alberton. She lives in Florence and commutes about an hour to and from work each day.

The pre-K kids participate in normal elementary school activities like reading and music class, but a big part of their learning is about building social and emotional skills, Dallapiazza said. Things like sharing, vocalizing needs and learning social etiquette are meant to prepare the kids to be productive students and adults.

“This is what it’s all about in life,” Dallapiazza said.

At a press conference last week at the Montana Capitol, Bullock said he had visited a number of the pilot programs, and is convinced of their success. His argument is similar to Dallapiazza’s — that the skills kids learn in pre-K will be applicable in the long-run.

“I met with kiddos who grew cognitively, socially, and emotionally in a preschool classroom, and are able to develop the skills they’ll need throughout their lifetime,” Bullock said.

Some public school districts in Montana already pay for their own preschool programs without state money, but others can’t afford it.  According to a Rutgers University analysis, Montana is only one of six states that does not provide for public preschool.

Principal Mica Clarkson says the difference between Alberton Kindergartners who attended preschool and those who didn’t is significant. In an interview, she said she’ll do everything in her power to pinch pennies and continue to offer pre-K whether the Montana Legislature chooses to fund it or not. (Shaylee Ragar/UM Legislative News Service)

Alberton Principal Mica Clarkson is thankful to have the program, and said she will do everything in her power to continue the preschool class with or without state funding. The school is comprised largely of low-income families, and qualifies to offer free lunch to every student through the National School Lunch Program.

Clarkson said many children in the community would not get any preschool education without the public program. She said even learning to play games like Go Fish can help young students.

“It’s huge for these kids, to have that opportunity to learn those kinds of games and learn the skills that are underlying those games,” Clarkson said. “So that way, when they reach Kindergarten, they’re going to transition much easier into the requirements of what a typical school day looks like.”

Clarkson said the difference can be dramatic.

Without preschool, about 50 percent of Alberton students started Kindergarten proficient in math and 29 percent were proficient in reading skills. Those rates jumped to 75 percent proficient in math and 67 percent proficient in reading for students who started school after completing a pre-K program.  

However, Schreiner’s HB 225 has some stipulations that Clarkson is opposed to. The bill says funding would be determined by a school’s average number of enrolled students. It’s meant to decide how many teachers and financial resources a district needs. Clarkson said whether there are 5 preschool students or 20, she still needs to pay a full-time, quality teacher. She wrote a letter to lawmakers urging them to forgo this requirement.

Others, including some Republican lawmakers, object to the program being included in a bill that aims to address multiple issues at once.

Schreiner’s bill includes mandatory inflationary adjustments to the entire education budget, new permanent inflationary adjustments for special education funding and an appropriation of $250,000 for a teacher loan repayment program in addition to the preschool program.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, is chair of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and said funding for special education and preschool should only go to schools with a critical need. Jones said he thinks Schreiner’s bill has little possibility of passing because it ties multiple different programs into one piece of legislation.

“I don’t support it being in a omnibus bill,” Jones said.

Jones and other Republicans introduced House Bill 159 to fund inflationary adjustments for public schools, which passed the House and is now moving through the Senate. The Democrats’ bill would compete with HB 159. This bill is required by law to pass each session. Jones said preschool could be considered individually in a separate bill.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen agrees with Jones. She said the pre-K program is an interesting idea to give students “the best start in school,” but that Schreiner’s bill has too many moving parts. She said it would be better to pass education legislation separately. Arntzen says she has concerns about the how the state would fund this program into the future.

Schreiner, a former school teacher, says he doesn’t agree that the preschool program should be addressed separately.

“You can’t piecemeal together our state’s education system,” Schreiner said. “I’ve also been around this body long enough to know that ‘address in the future’ doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” Schreiner said.

While legislators continue to debate preschool at the Capitol, parents and educators like those in Alberton will anxiously await the outcome. Jamie Evans hopes more parents will have the same opportunity her daughter had.

“To do without this program would be a real disservice,” Evans said.

Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at shaylee.ragar@umontana.edu.