By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

BIG SKY – Morningstar Learning Center is leading a community effort to advance early childhood education in Big Sky.

Through a new program called “Basecamp to Kindergarten,” the initiative aims to improve readiness for kindergarten in order to create a better educational experience in elementary school and beyond.

“Equally important is our goal to bring together all of the different organizations in Big Sky that strive to help children and families,” wrote Jennifer O’Connor, Morningstar’s Development Director in an email. “That [way] we can pool our resources and our efforts to achieve the best possible beginnings for our students.”

Other organizations working in partnership with Morningstar include the Ophir School and Big Sky School District, Bozeman-based THRIVE, Big Sky Community Library, Women In Action, Camp Big Sky and the Yellowstone Community Club Foundation.

Expenses for the first year of the program are expected to run about $11,000 due to high set-up costs, but future years will be significantly less, O’Connor said.

Morningstar was awarded an $8,000 grant from YCCF the first week in June, and is still seeking additional funding from resort tax and the community to complete the program, which consists of three parts.

The first component includes a community newsletter called the Morningstar Messenger, which will provide information about local resources and events for families with children under the age of six.

The second is a series of five community learning sessions covering various topics to help parents navigate early childhood development and education. The first class was held May 19 at Morningstar and funded by the center and Buck’s T-4, with 26 parents and 27 kids in attendance, according to O’Connor.

“We couldn’t be happier with the turnout and are off to a fabulous start,” she said. The next community session is June 23 at Morningstar and will address ways to help students be prepared developmentally, socially and emotionally.

Big Sky School District Supt. Jerry House attended the May 19 session. “[It] was absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It was an informational meeting setting the foundation for a lot of work to come.”

House also noted that Gov. Bullock is a proponent of early education. The governor plans to unveil the details of a universal pre-k program in Montana before the 2015 Legislature.

The third aspect of the Basecamp to Kindergarten program will involve resource packets providing educational activities for children and guides for parents, which will be available for check out at both Morningstar and the community library.

Only half of students entering kindergarten in Big Sky currently meet the expectations for new kindergarteners generated by Ophir and Morningstar teachers this year. Basecamp for Kindergarten aims to increase that 10 percent by August, and 25 percent by August 2015.

Although Morningstar is spearheading the program, O’Connor emphasized the program is intended to help all Big Sky children – not just those attending Morningstar – so that every kid is on the same page when they enter kindergarten.

“The sooner we can start, the better,” House said. “The opportunity is here, and we need to capitalize on it.”

For more information visit morningstarlearningcenter.com, or email Jennifer O’Connor at developmlc@gmail.com.