Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
The North Dakota Department of Human Services (DHS) has introduced a pilot program designed to serve children and families in the year before they enter kindergarten. The Best in Class Grant program is built on over 20 years of research from similar programs across the country, especially the First Class Pre-K program in Alabama.
Alabama’s program has been awarded the highest-quality rating by the National Institute for Early Education Research for 15 consecutive years. After seeing the impact of Alabama's First Class program firsthand, and seeing that they had extensive data showing results, legislators were intrigued.
Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, sponsored the bill that established the Best in Class competitive grant in the 2021 Legislature. After seeing the data, he was impressed by the results and didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work in North Dakota.
“All of our kids deserve a fighting chance,” said Weisz. “And, the data shows we will spend more money later if they start out behind in school.”
This year there was a very quick turnaround time for establishing guidelines, the application, and awarding grants. School districts that are organized as PreK-12, Head Starts, and licensed childcare facilities could apply. There were a total of 42 applications and 23 programs were selected to participate in this first year.
“We were pleased with the number of applicants from the pilot year – it shows our state’s desire to offer quality early childhood experiences,” said Shonda Wild, DHS Best in Class program administrator. “We have one that is a Head Start, one that is a preschool (licensed childcare setting), and the rest are public schools.”
Wild explained a few of the benefits of the program. “Teachers know the program will support them in many different ways,” she said. “They are supplied with curriculum and will have access to professional development, health consultants, and family engagement components. They will also have a Best in Class coach who is there for assistance and support as the program delivers the service.”
The grantees are also required to coordinate and/or offer health screenings and referrals for each child enrolled in the program. This included quarterly health consultations, vision, hearing, and dental screenings, as well as mental health consults.
The family engagement components are very important to the Best in Class program design. They will specifically help families that wouldn’t normally be able to access high quality programs, screenings, and referrals, and give these children a distinct advantage moving into kindergarten.
Right now, the state investment is scheduled to continue through June 2025. Programs will need to send in a new application each year. They will be closely monitored, evaluated, and supported to ensure Best in Class has an impact and will continue to be funded in the future.
Get more information on the Best in Class Grant Program here.