Protect our future with pre-K legislation

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock sits down for lunch with pre-K children at the Early Childhood Center at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell on Thursday, April 12. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

I urge public support for early childhood education, also known as pre-kindergarten.

In 1952, my mother enrolled me in first grade. I knew how to sit still, pay attention, do my work, respect my teacher and get along with my classmates. All the other kids knew the same. We were 6 years old and ready to learn.

Those days are gone. Upheavals in society have produced many children who enter school with no experience of being safe, valued or accepted. They can’t learn because they don’t know how to be part of a group and respond to instruction.

We may all have our opinions about this, but my position is clear. It’s my personal responsibility to do something about it. I’m a trustee of the Kalispell Public Schools. I took an oath to uphold the Montana constitution, which says, “It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state. The Legislature shall provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools.”

Each person. Not just well-adjusted kids from good homes, but all kids. Equality of opportunity. Every kid must be taught, regardless of the difficulties and cost. Quality schools. Not just a room and a book, but an environment suitable for learning. We have to do this, by law and by what is right.

Our teachers have found ways to meet the challenge of high-need kids. I have stood in the classrooms of our elementary schools and watched our teachers intervene and regulate out-of-control kids within minutes. I have approved sending our teachers to workshops where they learn best practices based on academic research and real-world experience. I have seen our multi-tiered systems of support in operation, creating a yearning in children to be in school so they may enjoy the acceptance and approval of their classmates and teachers. I have watched test scores and graduation rates climb year after year as we implement these practices in the primary grades and carry them all the way through high school.

Unfortunately, I have also voted to expel adolescent students who did not receive help in their early years and whose anti-social behavior was affecting an entire school. I know how bleak their futures may be. Some will take to the streets to escape the misery of their homes.

All of our students benefit from classrooms that are communities where kids care for each other and experience the emotional rewards of cooperation and group achievement. The whole point of public education is to enable kids to accept and get along with each other. The healing and strength of our society depends on this.

Over the years, we have added kindergarten to public education. Our teachers and administrators now tell me that for high-need kids, the process should begin at age 4. They have shown me studies confirming this, such as “Proven Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions” from the Rand Corporation. Our teachers have also summarized their views in a letter to me, which I now quote.

“Kalispell Public Schools specifically sees preschool early intervention as an integral support for students’ social, emotional and behavioral health. It provides high-need students the opportunity to learn and practice social skills and language. Some of these kids have never been exposed to an environment where they are required to share, take turns, self-regulate, etc. Not all pre-schoolers need a formal program, but identifying our most at-risk students and getting them an early start at age 4 allows skills and school expectations (sitting, listening, following directions, working with others, etc.) to be taught, which allows for a higher success rate at kindergarten. These high-need students often come from dysfunctional families. Our early intervention program provides the opportunity to teach the parent(s) proper parenting skills, benefiting the students for the remainder of their school career. Students impacted by trauma require a much higher level of care. The earlier this support can begin, the better the results will be for the student and family. When behavior can be regulated by the student, with help and support from school staff, academic success increases. Children who don’t attend preschool are 25 percent more likely to drop out of high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.”

I believe it is wiser to help a young child learn how to be part of a better world than to suffer the consequences over the next 10 years of that child disrupting our classrooms, consuming our special-education resources, and getting caught up in juvenile crime, drug use, human trafficking, domestic violence, and a host of other evils. For me, early childhood education is not a political issue. It’s what we must do to honor our constitution, our values, our morals and our culture. It’s how we heal our communities and protect our future.

Our state Legislature is now considering funding for our schools. A number of bills are before them. Any of these bills can be amended to include early childhood education. I have contacted my legislators to express my support. I urge you to do the same.

Mike Merchant is a trustee with Kalispell Public Schools

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