BISMARCK — Many North Dakota parents will soon have an opportunity to enroll their 4-year-olds in a new prekindergarten education program that prioritizes family engagement and skill-building.

At least 20 North Dakota early childhood education programs will be awarded funding next month to provide better education and introduce 4-year-olds to subjects they will learn once they enter elementary school.

The Best in Class program will award up to $120,000 to existing early education programs that serve 4-year-olds to bolster the quality of education and the involvement of families in their child’s learning.

The Best in Class program will be inclusive, state officials said, with the goal being that families can enroll their children regardless of income. Programs are not required to charge tuition, but if they do, they need to charge tuition based on a sliding scale by a family's income.

“This is about strengthening families so (they) can make sure that their students are ready for their life,” said State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler. “It’s as much about getting kids ready for life as it is about making sure that schools are getting ready for the kids that we’re finding.”

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The Department of Human Services will decide which programs across North Dakota will receive the funds early next month.

The grant program was approved by the North Dakota Legislature in the past session to offer kindergarten readiness to the state’s youth by trained teachers and personnel.

Prior to the session, North Dakota was one of the few states that did not provide statewide funding for prekindergarten education, Baesler said. With this grant as a starting point, the goal is to one day expand the Best in Class program to every school district in the state, she said.

Each program awarded funds will have either nine or 18 students depending on its size, and it will be required to reserve 50% of its available slots for students whose household income is less than 60% of North Dakota’s median income or for students who have a developmental delay or disability.

Recipients of the grant can use the funds to hire staff, provide teacher training or purchase educational supplies, like classroom technology or playground equipment. Each program awarded the funds will be assigned a coach to implement all aspects of the program and assist teachers on how to best serve its students, said Tara Fuhrer, an early childhood team member with the state’s Department of Human Services.

Children will develop skills to help them be stronger kindergarteners once they enter elementary school, Baesler said. Teachers will use a research-based curriculum that works on a child's literacy and numeracy skills. Families will also learn ways they can become involved in their child’s learning.

The goal is not to expect children to be able to read or do math right out of the program, but to have exposure to words, numbers and experiences they will encounter once they enter elementary school, Baesler said.

The grant program, which was created through a partnership between the Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Human Services, will measure student performance by examining scores on the state’s kindergarten readiness assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

“These children are going to have that greater support that you wouldn’t normally see in an early childhood environment for 4-year-olds,” Fuhrer said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.