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National spotlight on critical importance of the early years echoes work of Hopa Mountain’s StoryMakers Program and Together Campaign

During his recent State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama acknowledged the value of early childhood education. Drawing from studies that indicate how a preschool education can close the academic gap between low-income and middle to upper-class students in elementary schools, he called for “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”

Obama further promoted this proposal by visiting College Heights Early Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia, where he lauded the city’s early learning system for its success and called for similar models throughout the nation.

Nonprofit Hopa Mountain’s StoryMakers, a six-year-old program based in Bozeman supports families of children ages 0-5 in order to address this issue right here in our state. StoryMakers teams with doctors, nurses, and other citizen leaders in communities throughout Montana to distribute children’s books and education tips to parents. Partners encourage parents to create rich learning environments in the home. Recent studies and articles further advance the importance of nurturing, learning-filled home settings—especially those filled with positive language.

Research also indicates that when it comes to reading scores, it doesn’t matter what a child reads or is read to over the summer months. What matters is that the child is interested in the material, and ideally, allowed to pick out his or her own books to enjoy. Furthermore, creating a home learning environment together can be fun. Summer is a great time to be outside, observe the natural world, and to cultivate storytelling with your children.

Right here in Pablo and Ronan, books are offered through CSKT Early Childhood Center and the D’Arcy McNickle Library. (Please call 406-586-2455 for more information.)

At College Heights, kids from all backgrounds engage in vital learning activities—from arithmetic and spatial knowledge to critical thinking and social/emotional skills. As the president noted, “what we saw in the classroom here today was kids are taught numbers, they’re taught shapes, but also how to answer questions, discover patterns, play well with others.”

Preschoolers are at a critical age for brain development. Children aged 0-4 are at the age when learning makes the most significant impact. At this stage in life, the brain absorbs information at a rapid pace, ensuring that the knowledge obtained builds important brain connections. These connections prepare a child’s brain for more advanced concepts down the road. While speaking at College Heights, the president stressed that “the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.” Preschool not only gives students that early start in kindergarten—it also creates a valuable foundation that follows preschool graduates throughout their lives.

For many families—including many here in Montana—affordable preschools still have long waiting lists. This roadblock, along with out-of-reach prices at other preschools, prevents children who need that strong early start from accessing these valuable programs.

However, this recent spotlight on Early Childhood Education by the White House, and subsequently by larger media outlets, will provide further support for early learning programs like StoryMakers.

In an article on the president’s proposal for early learning accessibility, Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute highlights the importance of providing children access to early education even before preschool age: “We need to start earlier [...] what we do in these programs will make all the difference. To serve most low-income children, we need a ‘surround strategy’ that addresses these families’ other needs.”

Hopa Mountain strives to do exactly that. The StoryMakers initiative involves family participation and education, ensuring that children have rich learning environments both in school and at home. StoryMakers works to provide resources and spread information on early learning to parents throughout Montana. The books and materials provided emphasize overall wellbeing—including good nutrition, exercise, and social and emotional health, along with language and literacy development.

In addition to the StoryMakers program, Hopa Mountain also disseminates positive, useful resources and information about early learning through its Together Campaign. A comprehensive web site, complete with tips, PSAs, videos, and links to additional resources offers parents the opportunity to lead their children into successful and stable futures. Hopa Mountain’s many partners throughout the region work to ensure that children in Montana grow into happy, healthy, and successful citizens. Parents want the best for their babies and children. With the right information and resources, Hopa Mountain believes that every parent can provide their children with strong support for happiness and wellbeing. To learn more, please visit hopamountain.org/together/.

White House acknowledgement of this issue—along with further notice in the media—will contribute to spreading Hopa Mountain’s message broadly. And hopefully, such notice will also encourage Montana’s community leaders to recognize the value in providing children with rich learning environments—both in an academic setting and in the home.

Hopa Mountain invests in citizen leaders who are working to improve education, ecological health, and economic development in their home towns. Through its seven core initiatives, Hopa Mountain helps citizen leaders further develop their skills to deliver strength-based programs, services, and organizational efforts that meet needs expressed in their individual communities. Hopa Mountain matches resources of all kinds to rural and tribal citizen leaders to help them achieve their goals. To learn more about Hopa Mountain and its StoryMakers program, please visit www.hopamountain.org or call 406-586-2455.

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