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Billings educators seek to fill learning gap with new preschool

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Posted at 6:50 PM, Sep 07, 2023

BILLINGS - Tucked neatly and purposely inside a specially designed business suite on Mullowney Lane, you’ll find sharpened pencils, colorful toys, and plenty of potential.

“We’re just really passionate,” said Marlee Bies, who recently embarked on a path she’s always dreamed about.

“I just really felt a calling and a change,” she said.

Bies opened A’s and B’s Preschool, in its temporary location, in a growing area of Billings near the Annafeld Subdivision and Josephine Crossing. It's an area attracting many young families with small children.

Bies’ journey to owning her own preschool has had its challenges along the way.

“You know it’s just been a grace-filled process,” she said. “And being patient and acknowledging that everyone is going through a hard time.”

The pandemic changed the way students learn, the way families budget, and how businesses build their brand.

To find success, Bies enlisted two other educators with similar goals and skills.

Bies, along with Cady Lackner and Hayley Arneson, are licensed teachers with professional experience in the classroom. Now the trio is hoping to fill a big gap in early childhood education in Billings.

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“I want to instill a good quality education for littles and help shape them before they get to kindergarten,” said Bies.

Montana continues to face a childcare crisis where supply doesn’t meet demand.

According to Montana Kids Count, in 2020, there was one licensed childcare slot for every three children under the age 6. With 11,632 children in Yellowstone County below the age of 6, the childcare capacity is at just 4,173.

“We can give these kids a place where they get more one-on-one with a teacher,” said Arneson.

“We just meet the needs of more kids too,” said Bies.

The group is starting the school year with fewer students than hoped. In response, the educators are looking for ways to get their school model out while being fluid in their structure.

“It’s been hard to scale back and realize all three of us don’t have 20-plus kids. We have a small group, and we can be intentional and excited,” said Bies. “We don’t even need name tags. We know their names already. “

Bies envisions exploration through play and classrooms that rotate students, so each child gets quality time with each educator.

Children will experience a play-based environment, with a curriculum that changes routinely but also covers the basics of learning and provides a safe social space to grow and engage.

“We want to prepare this generation of kids to be successful. That is our main goal,” said Lackner.

But it’s that small environment and educational model that’s compelling for mom Laura Bies, who has decided to enroll her 3- and 5-year-olds.

“We are raising the next best generation, and we really must have faith in them and put them in structure-based programs so they can grow up and be great humans and do the best they can, when they have to run the world,” said Laura Bies.

A critical way to learn, as research states that Pre-K early learning is critical in the educational success of a child for years to come.

“The excitement and the grace is pushing through,” said Bies.