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Schools prepare to retool early childhood programs

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In Bozeman and elsewhere, Montana’s new early childhood literacy law spells change and potential expansion in the education of kids under 5.

By Alex Sakariassen MONTANA FREE PRESS

Public school districts throughout Montana are preparing to retool their approaches to early childhood education this spring, as state education officials move closer to implementing a new law aimed at bolstering reading proficiency among the state’s youngest students.

For Bozeman Public Schools, the changes will bring an end to the district’s nine-year-old Running Start program, which offered early kindergarten instruction for children under age 5 at two Bozeman elementary schools. According to Superintendent Casey Bertram, the district is now developing the framework for new programming made possible by the 2023 Legislature’s passage of House Bill 352. Bertram said via email that the district’s final plan could include summer literacy classes, at-home instruction options for families, and an expansion of the number of classrooms accommodating 4-year-old students.

“Bozeman Public Schools is building out an early literacy plan to leverage all of those components, thus providing more substantial programming than we are currently offering,” Bertram wrote. “While final details are being worked on, the basic premise of our planning is to maximize the services available (via literacy assessment) to eligible students.”

Over the past decade, Bozeman became one of a rapidly growing list of Montana public school districts to enroll students under the age of 5 using an “exceptional circumstances” provision in state law. That meteoric rise — from 41 districts and 57 under-5 students statewide in 2013 to 93 districts and 1,269 under-5 students in 2023 — raised concerns among lawmakers about the use of state funds for pre-K programs and gave rise to HB 352 last session. The bill sought to clarify how districts can admit under-5 students, while focusing early childhood instruction on improving student literacy rates by the end of third grade and expanding state funding for such efforts. It passed with strong bipartisan support, and was described by Bertram as “one of the most significant and positive changes I have seen from the Legislature” in 22 years.

“Bozeman Public Schools launched Bozeman Reads a few years ago to specifically work on the early literacy goal of the district,” Bertram wrote, referencing a preschool literacy initiative backed by the nonprofit Bozeman Schools Foundation. “We are seeing great success with that programming, and the additional funding made available via HB 352 will make expansion of that work a reality.”

Bertram added the district will continue to communicate HB 352-related developments to parents via its enrollment webpage, as well as emails and newsletters.

Districts such as Bozeman are still awaiting the adoption of regulations by the Board of Public Education spelling out in greater detail how HB 352 will play out in practice. Included in those details are the specific methods and tools local school officials must use to evaluate whether a student is eligible for enrollment in early literacy programs. So far, the board’s Early Childhood Literacy Advisory Council has recommended a high degree of flexibility in that process, allowing districts to use any literacy assessment they wish provided it meets certain state-mandated criteria.

The Board of Public Education held a hearing at the state Capitol in Helena Thursday to collect public comment on the council’s recommendations. No comment was provided, either in person or via Zoom. The comment period is open until 5 p.m. on Jan. 7, and the board is expected to review the proposed rules later this month.

Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton, who also serves on the advisory council, told Montana Free Press Thursday that he expects “no real disruption” to existing early kindergarten programming as a result of the new law. Districts will have to do “some retooling” of their current offerings to comply with whatever rules the board adopts, Melton added, but if anything, instruction for children under 5 will be more expansive moving forward. Melton anticipates districts will be on track to begin evaluating students this spring for fall 2024 enrollment.

“Ultimately, if you follow the line of the fiscal note [for HB 352], it projects that there will be more kids served under HB 352 than under ‘exceptional circumstances,’” Melton said.

For Bertram, those evaluations represent the biggest departure from Bozeman’s current Running Start program. The criteria for early enrollment for children under 5 will be solely based on literacy proficiency, Bertram said, whereas Running Start “cast a broader net and prioritized enrollment for students in a variety demographic categories that were disproportionately part of the achievement gap.” Bertram also noted that the new law doesn’t stop at early kindergarten, but continues to offer state support for students through third grade.

“The additional funding available via HB 352 will greatly enhance our ability to expand programming for 4 year-old students as well as our K-2 students who have struggles with early literacy skills,” Bertram wrote. “We are very excited about HB 352 and feel it has potential to be a significant game changer in supporting the literacy goals of the district.”

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