Over the past month, a group of Montana educators has begun hashing out new rules that would make it easier for public school districts to direct state funding toward pre-kindergarten programs for kids who are likely to struggle with reading in their earliest years.
Dubbed the Early Literacy Advisory Council, the group’s primary mission is to aid the Board of Public Education in crafting regulations that will guide childhood literacy programs throughout the state. The work marks a critical step in the implementation of House Bill 352, a widely supported bipartisan initiative passed by the 2023 Legislature to provide intervention for children at risk of not meeting literacy standards by third grade. To achieve that goal, the bill directed the board to come up with methods for gauging the trajectory of a child’s development in reading beginning at age four.
Once the board adopts a formal set of rules, local public school districts can proceed with establishing their own “jumpstart programs” — in effect, a pre-kindergarten offering tailored specifically at improving language and reading proficiency. Districts will be able to draw per-pupil state funding for those students, resolving questions that arose during the Legislature’s interim discussions last year about how to properly fund pre-K programming.
McCall Flynn, the Board of Public Education’s executive director, said in an interview that board members quickly recognized the need to enlist a panel of experts in early childhood literacy to provide professional input on HB 352, which will culminate in a formal recommendation the board will take action on early next year. The advisory council inched closer to such a recommendation last week, picking through a list of potential third-party tools districts could use to evaluate potential jumpstart students and refining the specific skills districts will be required to assess.
“What they’re hoping to provide is a list of approved screening tools, which would be the names of exact assessments, but not making it so stringent that a school district couldn’t use something that’s not on the list,” Flynn said.
Council member Colette Getten described the list of recommended evaluations as a “menu,” that gives districts multiple options when building their own jumpstart programs. Getten currently serves as the principal of Great Falls Public Schools’ Early Learning Family Center. She said districts like hers with established early childhood programs have typically already settled on their own evaluation tools.
In other words, Getten said, venturing off-menu will be fine provided a district’s method of evaluating jumpstart-eligible students assesses certain skills — in four-year-olds, for example, their awareness of speech sound patterning, their oral language and their knowledge of the alphabet.
“What the state is not going to do is say, ‘Here is the test you will give,” Getten said. “We’re really, really aware of districts wanting that local control, so we are just trying to create a menu of research-based screener tools that districts can choose from, and some are already using them.”
As with the Great Falls Public Schools, the Evergreen School District east of Kalispell won’t be starting from scratch in taking advantage of the new law. The district has offered early kindergarten for just over a decade now, with an average of 17 students per year. Superintendent Laurie Barron, who also sits on the Early Literacy Advisory Council, doesn’t expect that number to change much as a result of the Legislature’s recent action. However, she said, the law does move the state past its historic reliance on “exceptional circumstances” to meet the needs of young Montanans — a provision that allowed local trustees, on a case-by-case basis, to admit students under five into district classrooms. It also allows districts to expand their early childhood programming into the summer months, she said.
“We didn’t have that before,” Barron said, adding that the new law also gives districts the ability to “partner with parents and provide them at-home support” in literacy building.
According to data presented to lawmakers last year by the Office of Public Instruction, the number of under-5 students admitted to kindergarten in Montana rose from 76 in 2015 to 1,121 in 2022 — the latter count equating to roughly $3.3 million in per-pupil funding. At the time, legislators openly questioned whether the increase reflected a growing use of the exceptional circumstances waiver to fund pre-kindergarten programming with state education dollars despite the Legislature’s past rejection of universal pre-k proposals advanced by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Republican lawmakers repeatedly referenced the interim debate as the impetus for HB 352.
The trick for Evergreen, as Barron sees it now, will be figuring out how to fund a new summer jumpstart program early on. Per-pupil state funding is based on student headcounts conducted a year prior, she explained, meaning districts looking to add summer offerings to their retinue or launch a jumpstart program for the regular school year will have to come up with an initial funding source on their own. But based on her years teaching high school English in Georgia, Barron said she can’t understate the importance of closing literacy gaps while students are still in their earliest elementary years.
“I’m not talking about just reading to learn in a classroom,” Barron said. “I’m not talking about just sitting in 7th grade English language arts or 11th grade English or a freshman college English class. I’m talking about communication, social awareness, the ability to learn as you’re growing up.”
Flynn said the advisory council will discuss any final revisions to its proposed evaluation rules on Oct. 23 before forwarding its recommendations to the Board of Public Education. The board will begin reviewing those recommendations in November with the goal of collecting public comment before January. If all goes according to schedule, Flynn said, board members will hold a final vote next spring and have regulations firmly in place for districts in time for summer 2024.
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