At least eight Waterville area children will still be able to attend a pre-K class this fall following the recent conclusion of contentious state budget negotiations that ultimately resulted in no cuts to the early child care program that serves the neediest and youngest in Maine.

Head Start programs across the state faced a potential $1.8 million cut in Gov. Paul LePage’s original proposed spending plan, but the budget agreement he made earlier last week with lawmakers includes funding at the same level as the previous budget, at a total of $3.12 million.

For Educare Central Maine in Waterville, the cut would have resulted in one less Early Head Start class of eight children, according to Kathy Colfer, the child and family services director at Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, or KVCAP. The Early Head Start program often has higher demand as more school districts incorporate pre-Kindergarten programs into their offerings.

“We know that particularly for our infants and toddlers we have large wait lists for services for those families,” Colfer said. “A lot of these families need full day services.”

Before plans were even drafted, Head Start was facing a potential loss going into this legislative session. Its supporters had to fight to renew $575,000 it received in the previous budget as one-time funds.

“It feels good. This was a tough budget year,” said Rick McCarthy, a registered lobbyist for the Maine Head Start Directors Association. “We knew this money was at risk from the get-go.”

The governor’s proposed cut would have eliminated 83 slots statewide in the Early Head Start program, leaving as many children without access to free early childhood care.

Head Start has 11 agencies across the state that receive federal grants and two tribal grantees. The Early Head Start program serves pregnant women and children through 2 years old, while Head Start serves children 3 and 4 years old. Families have to meet the program’s criteria to be eligible for the service, and generally if they are at or below the poverty rate they are eligible.

Families that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income are also automatically eligible for the programs, and some agencies also serve children with disabilities.

“It’s just really great that (the legislators) recognize that our most vulnerable citizens need some supports,” Colfer said. “It’s supporting our future. We know that the whole foundation of the brain is built in the first five years of life so we’re recognizing that our young children should be part of the educational pipeline.”

Each agency in the state has a waiting list for both Early Head Start and Head Start, except for Midcoast Maine Community Action, which serves Lincoln, Sagadahoc and northern Cumberland counties and does not have a waiting list for Head Start services.

In Waterville, there are 54 infants and toddlers on the Early Head Start waiting list alone.

A total of 1,145 children are on waiting lists across the state, as of December 2016.

“We’re only serving about 30 percent of eligible kids in the state, so we should be doing more and long-term we would like to do more,” McCarthy said.

Beyond providing child care, Head Start agencies also connect families with resources like health care, primary providers and mental health services. They help families work on goals, like workforce training or higher education, and provide parenting resources they might not otherwise have.

Mary Ellin Logue, an associate professor at the University of Maine at Orono and director of the School of Learning and Teaching, said in a previous interview that Head Start can be about resiliency.

“It’s about resiliency and vulnerability. There are a lot of people who have a rough time in life, but if they get a second chance, they can reset,” Logue said. “Head Start is a place where many families can start again and do better with their kids than their own experience was.”

Educare Central Maine, which was established in 2010, serves more than 200 children from birth to 5 years old. Most live in low-income households or are considered at-risk, so the facility receives funding for Head Start slots. Waterville public schools, the William and Joan Alfond Foundation, the Buffett Early Childhood fund, and KVCAP are partners in supporting Educare, which serves a variety of children.

“We believe it’s in the best interest for children to go to school with mixed income groups,” Colfer said.

According to Logue, research shows that without intervention, poor children will enter kindergarten with lower language skills than others. The stress of being poor also takes a toll on families and on children’s ability to learn, she said.

“The costs of intervening early far, far, far outweigh the later costs,” she said.

A researcher at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire recently released a study that suggests the state serves even less than 30 percent of eligible children. Jessica Carson, a vulnerable families research scientist at the university, looked specifically at Early Head Start and the disparity in funded slots and those who are eligible using U.S. Census data.

Carson found that there are more than 8,000 children in that age range living in poverty who would be eligible for the program. There are 837 funded slots in Maine right now.

That number — 8,000 — would be a bare minimum, she said, as it doesn’t count those who lie in the 100 percent-to-130 percent poverty range or who struggle with disabilities or community-specific problems, and it also doesn’t include eligible pregnant women.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour