MANCHESTER — Seventh-grade sports teams, education technician jobs and several maintenance projects fell victim to cuts in next year’s budget for Regional School Unit 38.

But even while trying to minimize the tax increase for district residents, the school board found one area where they wanted to add, not eliminate: pre-kindergarten.

The board approved an expansion of pre-kindergarten at Manchester Elementary School, which was introduced two years ago and has been limited to 10 students. Next year, the program will offer morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate a total of 28 children.

There’s demand for the program — 25 children have been screened for enrollment next year — and Superintendent Donna Wolfrom said funding pre-kindergarten is a relatively easy choice, even in tight fiscal times.

“The earlier that we can work with students and build their pre-literacy skills, it eventually saves us money in the end because we don’t have to address students who have gaps in their learning,” she said.

Readfield-based RSU 38 is not the only local district to have made that calculation in recent years.

Even as school officials have made cuts elsewhere and overall enrollment has declined by 3.6 percent since 2009-10, the number of children enrolled in pre-kindergarten in eight Augusta-area school districts has risen 11.5 percent, from 486 in 2009-10 to 542 this year.

It’s also a statewide trend. Since 2009-10, the number of 4-year-olds in public pre-kindergarten has grown 32.5 percent, from 3,688 to 4,887.

Some public pre-kindergarten programs are collaborations with Head Start, while others are operated and funded entirely by school districts.

Maine ranked 14th in the nation in preschool access for 4-year-olds in 2011-12 with 32 percent enrolled in public pre-kindergarten, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Universal pre-kindergarten was one of the education priorities mentioned in President Obama’s State of the Union Address, and a legislative committee in Maine heard a bill last week to establish universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten by 2017.

Paying for pre-k

Public pre-kindergarten is funded through the state’s school funding formula, but after students enroll it takes two years for a district’s state subsidy to fully catch up.

That gap can be an obstacle to starting pre-kindergarten programs, said Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Rier.

Recent infusions of federal money, including the Education Jobs Fund stimulus, are a factor in the increasing availability of public pre-kindergarten in Maine. Particularly in 2011-12, many districts used stimulus money to hire pre-kindergarten teachers and pay them until the state subsidy kicked in, Rier said.

Federal money has helped in another way: School districts can lower the cost of providing pre-kindergarten by partnering with Head Start, the federal program providing preschool and other services to children from low-income families.

A decade ago, Southern Kennebec Children’s Development Corporation operated one school-based 4-year-old program at Gilbert Elementary in Augusta. Now they run Head Start programs in schools in Chelsea, Monmouth, Mount Vernon, Readfield, Windsor and Winthrop.

Operations Director Lisa Lowery said she’d like to add more, but the recent federal budget cuts from sequestration has put any expansion on hold for at least a year.

“It’s really exciting to see how the school districts are getting to appreciate the value of early childhood education and early intervention,” she said. “I wish we could be in every single one.”

‘It’s a good deal’

The terms of the partnership differ at each school. At some, there are spots for children who aren’t eligible for Head Start. The school district might hire its own teacher to work alongside the Head Start teacher or pay cash toward supporting the program.

In every case, the children get used to the elementary school they’ll attend, and they have access to opportunities that wouldn’t be available at a stand-alone Head Start site, like the library and physical education classes, Lowery said. And the school district gets to offer pre-kindergarten to at least some students at a reduced cost.

Somerville-based RSU 12 worked with Southern Kennebec Child Development Corporation to start pre-kindergarten at Chelsea Elementary in 2011 and at Windsor Elementary this school year. Each program enrolls 15 Head Start-eligible students and costs the district $10,000.

“For the tune of $10,000, we get to identify special needs and start working with those kids earlier, maybe even heading off some issues that would have appeared in kindergarten,” school board Chairwoman Hilary Holm said. “It’s a good deal.”

Holm said district officials would like to add more sites, perhaps including one in Whitefield, where a standalone Head Start program was closed. The only drawback to the collaboration is that not all students in the district are eligible because of income, she said.

Another Head Start agency, Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, partners with schools in low-income communities in northern Kennebec County and Somerset County. Their programs include Educare Central Maine at the George J. Mitchell School in Waterville.

In RSU 38, Manchester has relatively few low-income families, so Manchester Elementary wasn’t a candidate for a collboration with Head Start, Wolfrom said. Instead, the district pays for the entire cost of pre-kindergarten.

That’s why the program at Manchester started later and has been smaller than the ones run in collaboration with Head Start at Mount Vernon Elementary and Readfield Elementary.

Program growth

In the Augusta area, the only district to offer the sort of universal pre-kindergarten envisioned by the White House and supporters of the Maine legislation is Gardiner-based RSU 11.

The program is operated entirely by the school district, and a majority of families take advantage of it. There are 119 pre-kindergarten students this year, compared to 139 in kindergarten.

RSU 11′s pre-kindergarten started in 2002 and became available to all students in 2009 with the addition of a teacher and an education technician at T.C. Hamlin School in Randolph.

In the last two budgetary cycles alone, RSU 11 has cut 11 teachers and several support or administrative jobs, but Superintendent Pat Hopkins said district leaders have never considered saving money by cutting back on pre-kindergarten because it’s too valuable.

“We have seen tremendous growth over the last few years in student performance, and we attribute a lot of that to our pre-K program,” Hopkins said. “We find that we have more and more students who are coming to us without the skills that they need, and the pre-K program gives us time that is absolutely necessary to help prepare them for kindergarten.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com