School officials of Phillips-based School Administrative District 58 are applying for federal money to kick-start pre-kindergarten programs at two of the three elementary schools in the district.

If the programs are implemented, the Franklin County school district would be part of a burgeoning trend among school districts statewide over the past decade.

Around 60 percent of Maine school districts offer pre-kindergarten. The state’s pre-kindergarten student population is 4,932, or double from 2008 and more than five times the number of such students in Maine in 2003. The average kindergarten population is 13,400.

SAD 58 already has a Head Start program available at Phillips Elementary School, but Strong Elementary School Principal Felecia Pease said the school district is interested in starting pre-kindergarten programs with voluntary enrollment at Kingfield and Strong elementary schools too, in order to benefit from the increasing evidence that early education has long-term advantages.

The programs would allow up to 16 students at each school.

The school district budgeted $30,000 this spring to start renovating the school buildings for pre-kindergarten classes and school officials are surveying district parents until Dec. 12 to gauge interest in starting a five-day program.

“We felt there was a need for that in the district, with the hopes that it would give students a jump-start,” she said.

Pease said pre-kindergarten programs have been shown to help an incoming class of students get similar exposure to things such as reading, numbers and social skills before entering kindergarten.

The federal grant money, which is being applied for through the state Department of Education, will be awarded to pre-kindergarten programs that have changed significantly or are new additions in a district.

The district was already interested in starting a program under the state guidelines, which call for a minimum of 10 hours per week of pre-kindergarten to qualify the district for state reimbursement. However, SAD 58 learned it could apply for federal money that would help with initial startup costs, but the grant stipulates the schools have five-days-per-week classes with a minimum of five hours each day.

The surveys were sent home with students and are available on the school’s website,

Pease said the survey is intended to get input on what parents think about a five day pre-kindergarten program — for instance, what they think about it if day care already is available.

Pease said the district expects to learn this month whether it was awarded the money. The money would cover 80 percent of the cost of running the program in its first year. The grant funding would decrease gradually to zero by the fall of 2019.

The grant money would help with the costs of alterations can come with starting a program, such as lowering sinks, changing the bathrooms, updating the playground or buying furniture for classrooms.

Pease said the classrooms would have a maximum population of 16 students each and would be taught by a certified teacher and an education technician.

Jaci Holmes, federal and state legislative liaison for the Maine Department of Education, said the department thinks pre-kindergarten programs should be voluntary; and in Maine, pre-kindergarten is now optional. Schools have the option of starting a program, and once the program is launched, parents have the option to enroll their children or not.

Holmes said they don’t want pre-kindergarten programs to be a competition with existing programs, so many districts have conversations with programs such as Head Start and private nursery schools to see how they can all work together.

“It’s not a competition,” she said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252

[email protected]

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