By Laura Crist
A few weeks ago, I had a transformative experience. As a mother of four children I thought I knew it all about preschool. In fact, I had just registered my baby for her last year of preschool; however, I had not had much opportunity to learn about preschool from the hearts of community giants like Colette Getten, Judi Guisti and Ryan Beam.
These dedicated professionals are part of the staff at the Great Falls Public School (GFPS) Preschool located at Skyline School. Each year, the GFPS Preschool serves around 140 students each year who will eventually attend one of the GFPS “Title 1” schools.
There are 15 elementary schools in Great Falls. Schools are designated as “title 1” based on free and reduced lunch numbers indicating the percentage of low-income families that attend the school. There are other elementary schools and their eventual kindergartners are not eligible to attend Skyline unless their three, four or five-year old has a disability. About 60 children with disabilities are served annually at Skyline.
On average, Great Falls sends about 800 students to kindergarten each year.
The preschool is able to teach 100 students, Head Start enrolls around 350 students,
leaving a staggering 400 students who will need to find a private preschool, be taught at home or experience no preschool at all before kindergarten.
Given the limited capacity of slots at Skyline due to lack of funding, it is not surprising that Skyline has a long waiting list.
Montana is one of only five states who does not provide public preschool funding at this time.
The preschool operates solely on federal funds and grants.
But these stats, as stark as they seem, were not what moved me as a parent. What moved me were the hopeful stories told by Skyline parents and staff.
For example, Mrs. Judi shared with me about how she tries to help her students adjust to the structure and transition into preschool. She goes on home visits to help build parent-teacher and student-teacher relationships. These home visits are also tied into grants to help cover training, transportation and staff time.
She has found that these visits help to decrease student anxiety and allow for better transitions.
“Your brain doesn’t shut off. You are always thinking about your kids and what you could do better as a teacher.”
As she went out on these visits, she was introduced to the Gloege family, who I also had the pleasure of meeting.
The Gloeges family first heard about our public preschool through their daycare provider. They have two boys, Camden who is now four and Brayden, who passed away at the age of fourteen months due to a genetic disorder called GM1.
While visiting the home of the Gloege family to meet Camden, Mrs. Judi noticed the beautiful pictures of Brayden and was able to learn about their family’s heartache from Brayden’s passing. Alecia shared, “I got to spend every single day of those 14 months with Brayden, and Camden learned and loved him alongside me. I wish every kid could have this opportunity to learn how to love others.”
Alecia mentioned how Mrs. Judi asked about Camden’s hopes and dreams, expectations and concerns. Camden loved hearing about his new classroom and meeting his teacher.
Coincidentally, Mrs. Judi is also a special education teacher in our school district and told the Gloeges about the opportunity Camden would have to regularly interact with preschool children with special needs at Skyline as they work on gross motor developmental skills together.
“I want Camden always involved with the children. I want him to help with their therapies. It doesn’t faze him when he sees someone different than him and I don’t want him to ever seclude another child because of a disability” Alecia said.
When asked about the preschool opportunities, Alecia comfortably shared, “I think it’s great that this is offered. I wish it could be available to all students in Great Falls.”
I also met with Mr. Beam who was lesson planning in a room with about 15 other staff members. We went to Mr. Beams classroom. The room was bright, open and inviting.
Mr. Beam is not your typical preschool teacher. He has a fantastic beard and is soft spoken. He went on to tell me why he believes in visiting the homes of the students in his classroom and the benefit he sees when these visits are done.
“Home visits are relationship building activities. Everything about is non-evaluative. It is to instill a teamwork philosophy with the school and the family.”
The kids get so excited to have their teacher come to their home. Personally, Mr. Beam loves to hear the parents dreams for their children.
Often, after parents get over the shock of hearing this question (many have never been asked this), he hears parents share that they want their child to be a positive contributor to the community, to make good friends, to learn different things that they like and don’t like, to be able to graduate high school and attend college or to get a good paying job with benefits.
Just listening to Mr. Beam talk about the dreams of parents, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful.
I was also moved when I met the parent, Kelly Noble on a home visit and saw her with her three beautiful daughters.
They were literally jumping for joy when we arrived.
Kelly is a single mom and is fortunate to have her parents in town who are a huge support to her family. Kelly’s work has been flexible which allows for Kelly to pick up while grandma drops off.
Kelly’s dreams for her daughter are “that she can have consistency and structure, become self-reliant, be successful and so she can make wise choices; choices that will allow her to be passionate about her career.”
Can you hear the hope in her words?
With recent and significant cuts to the federal funding Mr. Beam noted that classroom sizes across the District, (including Skyline) are increasing.
Larger classes make it harder to meet the needs of the students. With the mindset of having a positive social and emotional relationship for optimal learning, large class sizes affect all students and their ability to be seen and have good relationships with their teachers.
With the federal cuts, Beam shared that the growth mindset of the preschool has been demoralized.
“Two years ago, we were hoping to expand to support 10-12 elementary schools in the District. Unfortunately, due to cuts we have had zero growth in the number of classrooms over the past two years.”
The preschool continues to have preschool opportunities for seven Title 1 elementary schools.
While meeting with Colette Getten, the administrator for the preschool, she shared with me how “sun setting” grant funds and Title one cuts have reduced certified and classified positions from their staff, to include an Instructional Coach and a Family Engagement Liaison.
They have also had their building supply budget cut significantly. “We have to include supply costs into our grant writing” and we are very intentional on the use of all our supplies during the school year,” Getten shared.
Colette is not one to become frustrated by the cuts and impacts on the preschool. In fact, with tears in her eyes she said,
“I will figure this out. I have to stay positive. I will embrace the outcome. I just need to know I had the opportunity to overturn every stone for opportunity for these kids.”
Yes, I was moved by these stories; by these passionate and positive people I met at the GFPS preschool. They are incredible role models and examples to our students and community. Yes, I am moved by their work, but I am even more moved by the work they cannot do; the children they cannot serve.
This essential program cannot be sustained, let alone grown, through the sole use of grants and federal funds.
If the hope that Skyline nurtures is to be continued and spread, there has to be public support, involvement and funding. Colette is working to put a task force together in our community to continue to show the Montana Legislature how public preschool will positively impact our community and especially our youngest students.