Did you know that there is a wonderful school focused on our youngest children, from infancy to elementary school age, right here in our midst? Well, I certainly didn’t, until Erin Merrill invited me to a luncheon briefing at Educare in Waterville.

Before I tell you about this amazing place, let’s get right to the most important things: 85 percent of brain activity occurs before the age of 2. The first five years of a child’s life dictates the rest of that life. At-risk children who do not receive quality early care and education are 50 percent more likely to be placed in special-education classes, 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent, and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

And now, the best news — 212 children are enrolled in Waterville’s Educare school, where Director Kathryn Colfer notes, “We are not going to change the face of Maine unless we do this.” And she means do this statewide, emphasizing that “public schools will always be our partners.”

As Kathy and Erin were leading our discussion about Educare, which has been in place for six years, I reflected back two weeks to a visit Linda and I enjoyed in Massachusetts with our son Josh, daughter-in-law Kelly, and granddaughter Ada, who had her second birthday on Monday.

Ada is blessed by a loving, nurturing family, and we marvel at how much she learns and advances every month. On this visit she recited the entire alphabet, talked in nearly full sentences, and “cooked” us a meal in her kitchen.

She is so bright and vibrant. And isn’t this what we want for all children?

You won’t be surprised to know that the Harold Alfond Foundation is a key funder of the Educare program, including tuition scholarships to 60 low-income parents who are working or in educational programs. There are 22 Educare programs nationwide, and we can be proud that the Waterville program has delivered the best results of all 22 programs.

Yes, our kids are smart, if we give them a chance to be.

As I walked through the amazing Educare facility, I thought about how elementary school teachers would be so happy to teach in a facility like this, where each classroom leads outdoors, kids have indoor play areas called “transition areas” to unwind and refocus, and teachers and parents have rooms of their own. Even the food here is exceptional. And the design of the building was very thoughtful, emphasizing natural light.

The program stresses the importance of parents participating in their child’s education, both at school and at home. And they partner with health care professionals to keep the kids healthy, and serve as a resource to other schools in northern Kennebec and Somerset counties. They also partner with the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter to offer playgroup opportunities for homeless children. And they even teach parents about cooking and nutrition.

Educare is open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., year-round, and allows each child to stay with the same team of teachers from birth to age 3 and from 3 to 5, with small class sizes and individualized instruction. And they are prepared for whatever the child needs, from speech pathologists to nurses and even artists.

As we stood in front of a beautiful work of art, a huge elm tree painted by Jane Burke on a wall near the entrance, Kathy told us how wonderful it was to see young children standing there for a half hour or more, entranced by Jane’s work.

As the discussion continued, I wondered why we don’t shift some resources from high school down to preschool. I’ll bet we’d have to spend a lot less on high school education if every child entered elementary school ready to go and to succeed.

So, how is the Educare program working out, you ask? Well, after six years, they now know that 100 percent of their students move into elementary school at or above grade level, meeting or exceeding school readiness in social/emotional, physical, language, cognitive, literacy and math benchmarks.

That’s right. Every single child left Educare with the very best chance to succeed in life.

I know I’ve used the word amazing a lot in this column, but I can’t think of a better description of what Educare is doing for children, right here in our midst, and wishing every Maine child could have this opportunity.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.