The Maine Department of Education announced Wednesday it is awarding $14.8 million in grants to 13 school districts, including several in central Maine, in order to expand access to public preschool programs that educators say enhance students’ likelihood of academic success.

“Research tells us that pre-K is where the foundation of learning is built for all students,” said Heather Perry, superintendent of RSU 3 in Unity, one of several central Maine districts that will share in the grant. “Successful learning experiences in the earlier grades and/or programs just continues to build confidence for students.”

Grant recipients include School Administrative District 58, which includes Phillips, Strong and Kingfield; Regional School Unit 74, which includes Anson, North Anson and Solon; SAD 53, which includes Burnham, Detroit and Pittsfield; RSU 12, including Chelsea and Somerville; SAD 49, which includes Albion and Clinton; RSU 3, which includes Brooks, Liberty, Monroe and Unity.

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.

The grants will be dispersed to the school districts over a four-year period, according to the education department. The grants go to districts considered to be in low-income areas, determined by whether more than 50 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“To truly give kids the strong start they need for success in kindergarten and beyond, preschool programs must be high quality, where instruction is intentional and grounded in research-based learning standards and proven best practices,” acting Education Commissioner Rachelle Tome said in a prepared statement announcing the grants.

In Anson, RSU 74 Superintendent Kenneth Coville said the district’s $1.41 million share of the money will expand the system’s existing pre-kindergarten programs from two classrooms to three classrooms in Anson, North Anson and Solon.

Those classrooms will go from programs that are four days a week for about 3.5 hours a day to five days a week for five hours a day.

The three sites will include 4-year-old students in all RSU 74 communities, he said, predicting enrollment would climb from the current 31 pre-K students to about 45.

If there are still spaces available, Coville said, school officials will open the classrooms to 3-year-old students in the district who qualify for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start Program because of low-income status.

After that, if there are still available spaces, they’ll open the classrooms to students in outside districts without access to pre-K programs.

Grant money will also pay for school bus upgrades that will enable them to transport 3- and 4-year-old students safely and to pay an adult to monitor the students during transport.

RSU 74 will also add a summer pre-K program beginning in June, Coville said.

In Phillips-based SAD 58, which has a Head Start program available at Phillips Elementary School, elementary schools in Strong and Kingfield will also get pre-K programs.

Strong Elementary School Principal Felecia Pease said last week the programs would probably start with voluntary enrollment and would allow up to 16 students at each school.

The grant will enable students in some districts to attend the pre-K programs for five full days per week.

“Our hope is that by being able to expand our programs to five full days a week that we will be able to increase options for our working families to participate in our pre-K programs here in RSU 3,” Perry said.

The district will offer the five-day, full-day pre-K at schools in Brooks, Liberty, Monroe and Unity.

According to Perry, research shows that students who participate in pre-K programs tend to have better attendance rates throughout their educational careers, are less likely to drop out in high school and generally perform better academically.

Evan Belanger — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @evanbelanger

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