Funding for Libby preschool program uncertain

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The Libby School District's preschool along Indian Head Road Wednesday in Libby. Libby Public Schools Superintendent Craig Barringer said the state had a chance to do a grant for preschool but chose not to. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

The Libby Preschool program’s future is uncertain after a four-year grant recently ended.

Libby Public Schools Superintendent Craig Barringer said, for just this school year, the preschool is going to be working off of three separate grants as well as “one time only money” set aside to help pay for the preschool program. No general fund money is being used.

The four-year Montana Preschool Development Grant used to fund the preschool program has since ended, he said.

“We can fund the program for one more year,” he said. And two years from now, the state will be able to reimburse and give the Libby Schools some money for the program.

The reimbursement funding would go to the Libby School District to help fund a transitional kindergarten program to support children in need, he said. It is essentially a kindergarten program with exceptions for younger, preschool-aged students.

Students will be using a kindergarten curriculum, but adaptations for the younger students will be made “to meet classroom needs,” he said. To get into the program, students will need a special waiver which the district will approve in August.

With state funding, the state counts how many students are enrolled in programs this year and then gives funding for that count in the next year, he said.

But, “what the preschool program will look like two years from now, we don’t know,” he said.

The state had a chance to do a grant for preschool but chose not to, he said. Adding, several bills to help fund preschools in the legislature did not pass.

Six years ago, before the program, 40 percent of new students headed to kindergarten were not “kindergarten ready,” he said.

In 2014, 63 percent of students in the whole community headed into kindergarten were “kindergarten ready,” he said. Now, 85 percent of students come in with those skills.

By “kindergarten ready,” Barringer means students coming into school with skills helping them not get behind on academic work, which in turn, helps lessen the likelihood of students dropping out.

At the moment, only 2 percent of students in kindergarten and first grade classes are “at risk,” he said. That number is usually 10 to 12 percent.

All of the school statistics say that having the preschool program has been a “huge benefit,” he said. The students in the 2 percent did not go through the preschool program.

“It gives all kids a great start, but it gives our most at-risk kids the best chance of getting through school,” he said,

The preschool program is five days a week for six hours each day, helping teach students with lots of hands on work, he said. Daily work ranges from math readiness to social and emotional learning.

“One of the best learning periods for a kid — is ages three to five,” he said. If a student is behind in reading and math by the end of first grade, they become typically always behind.

In the program, preschoolers learn how to play in groups, by themselves and how to interact better, he said. A lot of the day focuses on the social and emotional skills.

Because, “the reality of it is, you don’t see kids playing at parks much any more,” he said. “Cutting this program, we’re afraid would take us a step backwards.”

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