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Morningstar Learning Center holding focus groups to ID family needs

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The Morningstar Learning Center is seen during a January 2023 snowfall. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Feedback will not only inform Morningstar, but also Big Sky’s host of community organizations

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER

In early February, Morningstar will host discussions to unify the community around the needs of families supporting young children in Big Sky.

Executive director Mariel Butan told EBS that anyone is welcome, but the ideal participants are expecting or current caregivers of children up to age 8. Discussions will be facilitated by local resident Lori Addicks, CEO and President of Larkspur Group, a strategy and consulting firm, and anyone can sign up for one of three events on Feb. 2, 3 and 13.

Participants can expect to answer some form of three questions: What resources do you have? What resources do you not have that you wish you did? If you could make Big Sky perfect for young families, what would it look like?

“Everything that we’re doing comes back to ‘how do we increase child care capacity for this town?’” Butan said. “Inherent in [increasing capacity] is that it is quality child care, because I will accept nothing less. It’s gotta be high quality, and it’s gotta be accessible to everyone in the community.”

The focus groups are not solely based on Morningstar, Butan explained. She hopes the discussions will shine light on widespread needs of anyone pregnant, planning a pregnancy, planning an adoption, or raising a young child from birth. Many families are on Morningstar’s “very lengthy waitlist,” she added, or they’ve taken a different approach to child care. Those caregivers may still have unmet needs.

“We recognize that Morningstar is not the only provider of services for that period of time in a family’s life in this community. There are other services and resources that families should have, or want to have, to have a well-rounded and thriving experience as a family in Big Sky—that have nothing to do with Morningstar.

“We’re trying to capture [child care needs] so we can share with our community partners—be it BSCO, the library, Big Sky Medical Center,” Butan said.

She said these family-oriented focus groups were inspired in part by the recent discussions held by BSCO to brainstorm a new community facility. Nearly 150 community members participated.

“This is a conversation that hopefully will spark… that magic that happens when people are talking about ideas in the same place, [building] off each other,” Butan said. “One of the things I love about this community is that it’s the kind of place where if we can do something, we will.”

As the primary source of early child care service in Big Sky, Butan said Morningstar holds a unique position to hold this unique conversation. Community feedback will also inform Morningstar’s plans to increase their own capacity.

Campus expansion project

Morningstar owns the two lots adjacent to its present building. The provider moved into its primary lot in 2011. The second lot was purchased in 2018 with the intention of expanding its facility.

“We’ve been spending this year doing a feasibility study, not just [to answer] what can we physically do with our land, but what is the best way that we can utilize our resources to meet the needs of this community,” Butan said.

The project aims to ultimately add teachers and classroom space.

“As we all know, in any field in Big Sky right now, bringing in new people if you don’t have housing is very difficult,” Butan said. “That is another component of our project: housing for teachers, and physical space to have more children enrolled at Morningstar. It’s really important to have both of those components.”

If Morningstar determines a plan to build on its secondary lot, the next step would be funding. Butan said the project would be paid for by “a number of funding sources as part of an overall capital campaign.”

She pointed out that a common misconception among locals, which is that Morningstar is “all set” after having received a total of nearly $900,000 in total federal grant funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

That money has been applied to Morningstar’s operations, which run a deficit in order to pay teachers a living wage while keeping tuition affordable; these are financially conflicting goals at the moment, Butan said, but Morningstar remains focused on preserving both community access and quality of care.

“I think the narrative of ‘Morningstar is struggling’ gets tired,” Butan added. “The truth is, we’re doing really well, if you look at where we were a year or two ago. Because of some of the investments we’ve made in our classrooms, in our staff, in supporting them and developing them. They’ve done incredible work in a relatively short period of time.”

Since Butan started at Morningstar in 2021, this is the longest stretch she’s seen without a teacher leaving. The stretch coincides with a decision to suspend childcare on Fridays, a difficult short-term measure taken in order to offer more consistent service and a happier staff.

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