Children learning kindergarten
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On March 15, state lawmakers in a joint meeting of two legislative committees briefly discussed significant growth in the number of students under the age of 5 who have been admitted to Montana’s kindergarten classrooms in recent years. The meeting’s chair, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, requested that the Montana Office of Public Instruction investigate further to determine whether those students are eligible for the state funding that districts are receiving for their instruction.

Now, public school districts are working to comply with Bedey’s request and substantiate, in the face of sudden and unforeseen scrutiny, that their efforts to prepare some of the state’s most vulnerable children for success in their earliest years comply with Montana statute.  

“The worthiness of the objective is not at question here,” Bedey told OPI Budget Analyst Paul Taylor. “It’s a different question. Conformance with state law is very important.”

The discussion highlighted a growing trend in public school districts throughout the state aimed at strengthening students’ readiness for the rigors of all-day kindergarten. Districts have adopted various names for their local initiatives, but the general goal is uniform: to give certain 3- and 4-year-olds early and prolonged exposure to kindergarten curriculum in order to bolster the academic foundation needed to succeed in later elementary classes. According to preliminary data from OPI, the number of Montana districts offering such early kindergarten programming has increased from 23 in 2015 to 88 in 2022. 

While state law prohibits school districts from claiming per-pupil state funding for students under 5, it does grant exceptions in cases where school board trustees determine that “exceptional circumstances” warrant such a student’s enrollment in kindergarten. OPI’s data indicates the number of under-5 students admitted to kindergarten under such conditions statewide has grown from 76 in 2015 to 1,121 this year. As Taylor noted during last month’s meeting, the latter count equates to roughly $3.3 million in per-pupil funding. Whether the programs that funding supported meet the state’s curricular standards, and whether districts are applying the state’s “exceptional circumstances” clause as intended, are the questions legislators are now focused on. 

In response to Bedey’s directive, Republican Superintendent Elsie Arntzen sent a letter to school districts March 23 surveying them about enrollment of kindergarten students under 5. OPI told Montana Free Press via email that the letter asked for copies of school board policies and related materials establishing early kindergarten programs, as well as copies of school board meeting minutes documenting trustees’ determinations of “exceptional circumstances” for under-5 students from the 2021-2022 school year. As of Wednesday, the agency had received the requested information from 11 districts.

The unexpected scrutiny from lawmakers has done little to shake the confidence of school officials in the early kindergarten programming they’ve established. School boards have had the authority to admit students under 5 to kindergarten for decades, and a model policy produced by the Montana School Boards Association in 2015 helped bring added clarity to the enrollment process. Lance Melton, the association’s executive director, said the policy makes it “crystal clear” that students in preschool programs cannot be counted for per-pupil funding. He added that districts are smart enough to recognize the distinction between preschool and kindergarten curricula.

“Unequivocally to my knowledge, any district that I’ve ever worked with on this is doing this on the up-and-up,” Melton said. “They’re using the kindergarten curriculum, they’re giving those kids more time in the kindergarten in order to ensure their success. I think that’s a great thing.”

The “exceptional circumstances” outlined in the 2015 model policy include criteria for individual students, but also list five community-based indicators including high rates of homelessness or poverty, poor student performance, and higher percentages of disabled students or students from federally recognized Native American tribes. Ronan School District Superintendent Mark Johnston said his community hit all of those metrics, prompting the district to establish an early kindergarten program dubbed “2-K” in 2020. The program currently serves 36 students across two of the district’s elementary schools. 

Johnston said the academic gains among those students has been “phenomenal” so far, and he drew a firm distinction between the district’s 2-K lessons and more play-based preschool instruction, describing the former as a chance for kids to “get their feet wet in a curriculum in a kindergarten classroom.”

“It’s kindergarten,” Johnston said. “The kids learn sounds, you start to get the baseline on reading, how to count by numbers, how to look at things in groups. They spend a lot more time developing the foundational skills for math, reading, science, etcetera.”

Superintendent Micah Hill paints a similar picture in the Kalispell Public Schools. What started as a two-year grant-funded program in 2017 has since become a permanent fixture in the district, he said, with 56 students enrolled in five different early kindergarten classrooms. To Hill, the program, which is only open to children ages 4 and 5, is a critical tool in tackling the developmental and socioeconomic barriers that can prevent some students from succeeding in kindergarten.

“One of the things that kind of hurt coming out of that [joint legislative] committee was some skepticism about whether or not this is just preschool by another name, and we truly do not treat it as such,” Hill said. “Man, if we have kids that are able to read and write and demonstrate some level of proficiency before they make that next step, that’s just a game-changer for those kids moving forward.”

Early kindergarten has become a fully integrated part of the public school system in Great Falls, with teachers in the district’s transitional kindergarten program working to align their instruction with what’s expected of students in later elementary grades. Colette Getten, the district’s transitional kindergarten coordinator, said the goal in those classrooms is to gradually prepare younger students for the demands of an all-day school environment, from taking turns in class and navigating a lunch line to closing any social or academic gaps in their vocabulary. Social preparation can be particularly important for children with exceptional circumstances who may struggle with the pace and expectations of traditional kindergarten, she added, and that need has increased in recent years.

“COVID has upped the ante tremendously as far as the children that we see coming into the environment who haven’t had any exposure to other children,” Getten said. “Before, they were going to the park and playgroups and McDonald’s and the library, and all those places have been closed, with the exception of the park. A lot of children haven’t been out playing and interacting.”

While the spreadsheet presented to lawmakers by OPI may indicate a sudden uptick in Great Falls’ early kindergarten enrollment, from no students in 2020 to 105 in 2021, that figure strictly represents the number of under-5 students the district received state funding for. In reality, the transitional kindergarten program dates back to 2010 and was serving 100 students long before the district began including those students in its state funding count. Prior to that, Getten said, the program relied on one federal or state grant after another, and only turned to the school board association’s model policy to maintain its 12-year-old infrastructure when it failed to secure an applied-for grant in 2021.

“We haven’t changed,” Getten said. “It’s not like we took this huge advantage of the situation. We just saw a need. We saw an opportunity and a fix for it, based on what other AA schools were doing, to keep our program going.”

Democratic Rep. Sara Novak works as a special education teacher in the Anaconda School District, and sits on the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee — one of the two committees involved in the March 15 meeting. She views the rise in early kindergarten programs statewide partly as a byproduct of local control. Certain school boards have recognized the unique challenges facing students in their communities, Novak said, and have exercised the authority granted them by state law to mitigate those challenges. 

“That’s the beauty of local control right there,” Novak said. “Most every school district has their own set of policies that they’ve adopted, most of them participate in some sort of strategic planning and get feedback from their communities as to what the needs of that individual community are and the needs of their school system. And then they target that by providing an education that’s crafted specific to that culture within that community.”

Novak added that she doesn’t see anything wrong with the heightened attention her fellow lawmakers are now paying to early kindergarten. If anything, she said, the conversation will highlight the quality of the programming districts have adopted as well as the “reality of the need that we have in the state.”

Speaking with MTFP this week, Bedey said he doesn’t question whether there’s a need for such programs in Montana schools. He said he would welcome a thorough discussion about early childhood education during the next legislative session, and believes the lack of specificity regarding “exceptional circumstances” in state law certainly warrants a look. But in the meantime, Bedey said, he chairs a committee charged with executing the state’s education budget, and he questions whether school districts are applying the “exceptional circumstances” clause appropriately. When he sees a situation he believes may not be consistent with current law, he continued, “I’m duty bound to raise that issue.”

“If kids are being enrolled and placed in kindergarten classrooms, taking the same curriculum with other kindergarten kids, with 5-year olds, then I have no trouble with it,” Bedey said. “But if we’re bringing kids in and putting them in special classes — remedial or prep classes, something like that — despite the fact I think that might be a good idea, the law doesn’t permit funding those students as the law stands now.”

OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary wrote via email that as long as school boards have complied with state law, and as long as their early kindergarten programs meet state curriculum standards set by the Board of Public Education, districts should continue to receive the per-pupil funding associated with those programs. For Tom Moore, superintendent of the Great Falls Public Schools, preservation of that funding stream is essential to maintaining the professional staff and classroom instruction Getten oversees. The transitional kindergarten program relied for years on money cobbled together from various grants, he said, and its continued survival is due directly to the local flexibility created under the state’s “exceptional circumstances” clause.

“If for some reason the Legislature decides to change the rules in this next session and take that flexibility away from us,” Moore said, “then we will have to close those classrooms.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...