By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR
BIG SKY – In response to community need, the Big Sky School District will offer a new early kindergarten, or 4K, program for the coming school year. The school is currently advertising enrollment in the program.
This program, made possible by BSSD school board’s new policy 3100, will allow the district to enroll 20 4-year-olds. The policy, adopted by the BSSD Board of Trustees on Jan. 11, allows the school to enroll the younger children under exceptional circumstances and still collect full government funding for those students.
Montana is one of six states without a publicly funded pre-Kindergarten program. Recent attempts in the state Legislature to implement such a service have failed, but Montana law allows schools to enroll students under 5 if there are “exceptional circumstances.” The model policy provided by the Montana School Boards Association gives state school districts guidance when establishing early childhood education enrollment. According to public records, approximately 90 districts have adopted this policy.
In the BSSD school board’s policy 3100, exceptional circumstances include a public health emergency or other community disaster; the absence of available early childhood education opportunities in the community leading to learning loss; a disparity of access to early childhood education caused by the cost-prohibitive nature; and if improved access to early childhood education opportunities in the community will expand parent entry into the workforce.
School board trustee Stacy Ossorio called the new program a great initiative.
“More children will be able to enter kindergarten with having had exposure to early childhood education, she said. “Our school district is lucky to be able to have the community support and the space at the school to make this opportunity available.”
To get the program up-and-running, the district is making a one-time ask of $55,000 to the Big Sky Resort Area District board for startup costs. After that, the program will be sustained by government funding according to BSSD Superintendent Dustin Shipman.
At a March 15 meeting, the school board approved the hire of teacher Maggie Luchini who will be teaching in the new 4K classroom.
Right now, an enrollment form is available on BSSD’s website. Elementary Principal Brittany Shirley said she will notify families of their enrollment no later than May 30. Children born on or after Sept. 11, 2017, and before Sept. 10, 2018 are eligible for the program.
Shirley said she is excited to have the new “littlest learners” on campus and added that she thinks they’ll add a lot of value to the school community. There will be two big overarching benefits of this program, according to Shirley: alleviating the financial burden of child care on families and building foundational skills for the children.
“…I’m hopeful that we can really help to support some of those working families who are in need,” she said.
This program comes at a critical time when the Big Sky community has identified access to affordable child care as a top issue.
Mariel Butan, executive director of local day care Morningstar Learning Center, sees potential for financial and developmental benefits coming out of this program. She added that providing child care choices for parents is valuable, something that before this program Big Sky didn’t have much of.
“I think having school choice benefits the community and having the additional service benefits the community,” Butan said. “The 4K program is not going to have the same schedule as Morningstar and so that’s going to provide an additional option for families who maybe don’t need year-round childcare or don’t need a full day.”
Ophir Elementary School is an International Baccalaureate school following the Primary Years Programme, and Shirley said this new classroom will feature inquiry-based learning which for 4-year-olds, means a lot of play. She added that the learning will be rooted in kindergarten standards teaching students things like learning letter names and sounds and numbers one through 10.
“Our target is to build those foundational skills so that we have kids who are set up for a really successful school experience,” Shirley said.