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Panel speaks on early childhood education

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PABLO — A think tank of people who care deeply about children and work for their welfare gathered at the Johnnie Arlee/Victor Charlo Theater on the Salish Kootenai College Campus on March 18 to discuss early childhood education in Lake County. Lake County Democrats sponsored the panel.

Panel member Jeanne Christopher, director of Early Childhood Special Services for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has been working with children for 41 years. She’s been director of Head Start and Early Head Start for many years, serving about 250 children in classrooms in Arlee, St. Ignatius, Ronan, Pablo and Polson. 

Many of the children are foster children “just because that’s the way life is now,” she said. “We have families who have 10 foster children they are raising.” 

Early Head Start serves infants age 0 to 3. 

“We are funded for 40 kids, but we’re serving about 58,” she said. “We’re able to do that because the tribes help; they pay our heat, lights and our garbage.”

With approximately 177 children ages 3 to 5 and a fleet of buses, Head Start provides transportation and comprehensive services. Within 45 days, Head Start does a developmental screen, a physical, eye and hearing tests. They also serve breakfast, lunch and sometimes a snack.   

“One of the biggest things is learning social emotional skills and self-help skills,” Christopher said, such as learning to set the table at lunch.

Each center has a waiting list of 8 to 10 children. For the “earlies,” zero to three, there are approximately 150 children waiting for a spot. 

Panel member Joan Graham, special services director for the Ronan School District, moved to Ronan 30 years ago to teach at Ronan Middle School. 

“Primarily what I do is work with children with disabilities, also gifted and talented and adult education,” Graham said, “a broad array of services.” 

She works with children ages 3 to 19, and with Child Find for ages 0-3.

“We partner with Jeanne a lot,” Graham said. 

One amazing partnership is the Early Head Start right next to Ronan’s school administration office. The district provides utilities.

“In return our high school students take their children there for free. We ask them to work at the center and they learn parenting skills,” Graham explained.

Children with disabilities 

automatically move up on the waiting list “with Jeanne,” Graham said. The two coordinate so children can come to the Ronan District in the morning or afternoon and then go to Head Start for the other part of the day, “because sometimes it’s difficult to find a day care situation,” Graham said.

The issue Graham screens most for is speech. Many times children are sent to them because they haven’t begun to talk yet. 

Children who begin speech intervention at age 3 are usually done by second grade, according to Graham. 

Ronan School District’s pilot preschool program was federally funded for four years. As part of the pilot, the children were given a Brigance Early Childhood Screening pre and post preschool. The screening tests kids on such things as colors, letters, body parts and cutting out a circle.

“We have lots of kids score 20 out of 100 … but after preschool, almost everybody scores an 80,” Graham said. 

Kindergarten students who didn’t have a 4-year-old program take all year to learn to stand in line, sit in a circle and take turns, according to Graham. The children need to be focusing on kindergarten curriculum, which used to be first grade curriculum. 

“Research shows that if you are behind in reading in second grade, chances are pretty slim you will make it,” Graham said. 

She equates her services to the emergency room for $200 when a “clinic visit” for $20 would work. 

“The cost is much lower to have children go to preschool than it would be to provide a lifetime of remedial services,” Graham explained. 

Panelist Lisa Wall-Wilbert, director of Fun and Fancy Free Learning Center, works to provide a superlative care and learning environment for children. She worked at a daycare in Polson and then became a daycare owner at 18. Her employer encouraged her by saying Wall-Wilbert was young but she could do it. 

“At 18 I bought my first house and started a daycare,” she said. 

Eight years later she bought another house, and a year and a half later leased space from Providence St. Joseph Medical Center. The nursery for children ages infant to 1 is at the hospital, and one house has 2 and 3 year olds and the older preschool group together to prepare them for kindergarten. The remaining facility houses the school-age kids.

Wall-Wilbert does a lot of transportation — from school to her facilities on early out days and Pupil Instruction Days, and to preschools. She has a full house on summer breaks and school vacations. 

“My philosophy is trying to fill in all the gaps,” Wall-Wilbert said. 

To that end, she opens at 5:50 a.m. and she stays open until 6 p.m. to accommodate working parents. 

Probably 50 percent of the children who call Wall-Wilbert’s daycares a home away from home are foster care kids; they are not living with a mom or a dad, she said. She’s also a foster parent; Wall-Wilbert and her husband and family now foster three children. 

The Best Beginnings STARS to Quality program, funded through the State of Montana, reimburses Wall-Wilbert for a higher rate “to make our daycare the best we can,” she said. The program helps with employee training and a STARS grant helped set up a computer system for parent check-in and billing. The program is in jeopardy of not being funded by the legislature, she said.

Panelist Caroline McDonald, coordinator of Best Beginnings Children’s Partnership, said family life has changed.

“We imagine this idyllic early childhood — two happy parents with two golden children, one parent stays home and bakes cookies while the other works,” McDonald said. 

That’s not how life is these days; now it’s one or two parents working hard, she said.

“You are looking at the cream of the crop who provide services to children … they fill the gap for those parents,” McDonald said, gesturing to Christopher, Graham and Wall-Wilbert.

McDonald thinks of Best Beginnings children’s partnership as the spokes on a wheel; the spokes reach out into homes with children. The hub of the wheel is the partnership.

“Our position is to bring together all of these experts with their departments … knowledge and experience, and bring them together,” McDonald explained.

The partnership has been around for three years, and their first order of business was a comprehensive needs assessment. They polled all the school districts to see how they decided if kids were ready for school when they walked through the door. 

Every district used a different test and administered them at different times, “so we asked if we could all use the same one, and they all freaked out,” McDonald said.

After the partnership brought all the districts together, they generated a parent-friendly list. “No matter where they enter school, if your child has mastered the majority of those things, they are going to do just great,” McDonald said. 

Examples of skills listed on the sheet include  the ability to separate from his or her parent or caregiver without being overly upset; physical skill: the ability to cut with scissors, grip a pencil and crayon and can draw simple pictures of things in his or her world; academic skill: recognize and name at least four basic shapes, can count up to ten objects and can recognize and name basic colors.

Only about one third of the skills are academic, McDonald said. Kids need to play because “play is just work in disguise,” she said. 

Playing tag does a lot; it gives a kid the core strength to sit in his or her chair for an hour and a half, grip a pencil or crayon and write.

After Best Beginnings developed the kindergarten skill list, they needed to get the word out to the daycare providers so they put on a series of three trainings across the reservation. 

“We begged, pleaded and bribed Head Start and local elementary teachers, ‘Would you be our teachers and demonstrate activities for daycare providers?’” McDonald said.

One activity was putting Fruit Loops on an uncooked stick of spaghetti, and it teaches a pincher movement so kids can hold a crayon or a pencil.

Another benefit was communication between the teachers and daycare providers, such as, “I didn’t know anybody at the school before, and now I know you. This child has a need,” McDonald said, noting there were at least three calls that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Better Beginnings is planning another series of trainings.

When asked what would help, McDonald said she hears a lot about juniors and seniors in high school and work being done to make sure they graduate. She’d like to see more effort put into smaller children because 85 percent of brain development happens by age 3 and 90 percent by age 4. 

“Anything we can do to provide support earlier is going to pay off in spades,” McDonald said. “Do what you can for the little ones.” 


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