The Hamilton School District’s Little Bronc preschool is receiving less federal funding, but is continuing with rich services.

Eric Larson, director of Student Services for the district, is in his third year of involvement with the preschool.

“In public education we always anticipate getting cuts and there will be a point in time where the rubber meets the road and we can’t fund it at this level anymore,” Larson said. “We’ll have to change and adapt. That’s across the board - preschool is not unique.”

Hamilton School District currently serves 30 Little Broncs, age 3 and 4, with 11 of those students “typical learning peer models” or students who do not have a specified disability. The support team consists of one certified case-manager/teacher, four non-certified para professional support personnel, one speech language pathologist, one occupational therapist, and one physical therapist.

Larson said the federal funding has been in a consistent decline each year. This year, they received $13,977; last year it was $14,398, and the year before was $21,403.

“It has been a little bit of a hit each year,” Larson said.

The federal funding represents less than 8 percent of its staffing costs, Larson said. The Hamilton School District supports the remaining operating costs for personnel, classrooms, equipment, and materials.

The federal government provides specific funding for early childhood special education programs, typically for ages 0-5, as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Montana, local school districts provide the Office of Public Instruction the numbers of students with disabilities served.

“The OPI then submits this information to the federal IDEA funding office for review and then allocation of funds - typically based on the number of identified students listed,” Larson said. “Once complete, the OPI then tells us the amount of IDEA funds that we will have for that particular school year.”

Larson said he's not sure why the federal funding continues to decline.

“The original Part B of IDEA authorized Congress to kick in up to 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure for special education services and to this day, this has not happened,” he said. “I don’t have the specific research, but stats are showing a rise within identified students and no new or additional funding from the federal side.”

The HSD general funding for its preschool is different each year based on the needs of the students. Larson said the preschool does not have an actual budget line at the school because the school supplements what he needs for personnel. 

Funding reduction every year is not just for preschool education.

“Our Title One funding is that way,” Larson said. “Some years we are looking at upward of a 10 percent drop in funding of Title One through the federal [government].”

Larson said that the Hamilton general fund for support service in the preschool is $116,000 plus $13,977 from federal funding.

“That’s not an exact number but it is awfully close,” Larson said. “We take our early childhood education very seriously in Hamilton; serious enough that we put that much resource into it.”

Larson said his hope has been that Montana will fund schooling for 4-year-olds and that those students would count for enrollment numbers, which translates into additional funding in Montana.

The Little Bronc preschool is at Washington Primary School this year with a mix of special needs and typical learners attending a six-hour day.

“It’s been a great move back to Washington,” Larson said. “It is great to have the youngest ages together. Transitional kindergarten is right there.”

The program offers breakfast, lunch, quiet time (nap), and transportation. The curriculum focuses on learning through play, activity, and guided discovery.

“We use Zoo Phonics, letter recognition, movement, dance – a lot of stations, a lot of excitement,” Larson said. “It is where students learn basics for education later on.”

Having the preschool at Washington provides easy access to special services for speech, language, occupational and physical therapies.

“A developmental delay can be lack of exposure to opportunity, the autism spectrum and health concerns,” Larson said. “We started with two classrooms of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, but now we’re moving to be more blended. There’s still a huge commitment by the school district.”

Jeanette Gray, classroom teacher and case manager, has four support staff to help the school’s youngest learners.

“There’s a lot of research out there on how soon their brains begin to develop,” Gray said. “I’ve taught for 17 years and taught kindergarten 13 years ago. What we used to teach in kindergarten we now teach in preschool.”

Gray said that at age 4 students know all 26 letters and can read three-letter words. Preschool provides a jump start on social expectations, learned behaviors, and appropriate school manners.

“The students are learning kindergarten skills like how to walk in a line, how to use a tray in the lunch room, and what happens in library, PE, and music,” she said. “At Washington, we have great space with like-age kids. One of the first grade teachers will bring in readers to read to preschoolers.”

Gray said next year the 3- and 4-year-olds will be together in mixed age classes.

“Those older kids are such great models for language and communication and actually play skills too,” Gray said. “Typically, developing kids are great teachers too.”

Hamilton’s Child Find and Kindergarten Round-up is set for March.

“If parents have any concerns developmentally, that’s a great time to bring them in,” Gray said. “Preschool registration starts in March and that fills up quickly. Parents can call me anytime at Washington School, 363-2144.”

In two years the Little Bronc preschool is scheduled, with all of Washington Primary, to move into a new building at Daly Elementary School.

Larson said he hopes parents send their youngsters to preschool as an opportunity for exposure to structure, social interaction with peers, and focused learning opportunities.

“In our society, as it changes, I think some students don’t have the same opportunities,” he said. “As for funding, we’ll find a way because these Little Broncs will be Mustangs, Colts, big Broncs, and they are going to be the folks that will be running the world.”