NEW GLOUCESTER — When 4-year-old Caleb Haley and his mother walked into his new pre-K classroom on a recent afternoon, they were greeted with a warm welcome and a smile from his teacher.

“I’m excited,” Melissa Kraus, a teacher at the Burchard A. Dunn Elementary School, said to her new student. “Are you excited? You can play with whatever you want today.”

It wasn’t long before Caleb felt comfortable to leave his mother’s side to explore a sand pit of toy trucks or sit down on the rug with his new teacher to look at a storybook.

The classroom is among those in a growing number of Maine school districts to offer a public pre-K option – something many educators and lawmakers agree is important but have struggled to implement statewide.

As students head back to school this fall, about a dozen districts are planning on adding a collective 280 new pre-K seats.

Public pre-k is now available in about 75 percent of districts in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Education, though many districts have just one or two classrooms and can’t accommodate every student who might want to attend.

Gov. Janet Mills has made pre-K expansion a priority, and a bill last spring that would have mandated programs in every district is expected to be taken up again this legislative session.

Still, the cost of pre-K programs, which require higher student-to-staff ratios, and finding the physical space to add programs remain challenges.

Staff at the department said some districts have taken it upon themselves to add pre-K classrooms, as educators have seen firsthand the benefits that early childhood learning has in later grades, especially for low-income children.

New classmates Caleb Haley, 4, and Holly Hibbard, 3, play together during pre-K drop-in day last week at Dunn Elementary School in New Gloucester. Last school year, Maine had 5,944 public pre-K students – about half of the state’s 4-year-olds. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I think it’s a really positive, exciting thing,” said Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in the Portland Public Schools. The district is adding two classrooms at Rowe Elementary School and the East End Community School this year.

Their expansion is part of a plan to add 140 pre-K seats over five years under the district’s strategic plan, the Portland Promise, and comes with the recent hiring of a new pre-K director position.

“There was a tremendous amount of work and collaboration that happened across the city the last two years to figure out where do we want to go with our pre-K program and what will it take to get there,” Nalli said. “Ultimately our goal is to see this tie into our equity and achievement goals in Portland schools.”

In 2018-2019 there were 5,944 public pre-K students in Maine, or about 50 percent of the 4-year-old population.

Nationally, about 32 percent of 3-year-old and 4-year-old children were enrolled in public pre-primary programs in 2016, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Only three states – Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont – and the District of Columbia have fully universal pre-K where any student who wants to can enroll, according to a recent study by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. A total of 44 states and Washington, D.C., have some state-funded pre-K.

Last spring, Mills proposed spending an additional $7 million to expand pre-K across the state, though that money didn’t ultimately make it into the budget that was approved.

Holly Hibbard, 3, shows her mother, Jennifer Plaice, around her new Pre-K classroom at Dunn Elementary School in New Gloucester during Pre-K drop-in day last week. Holly is Plaice’s second child to go through pre-kindergarten at Dunn Elementary. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Meanwhile, a bill that received unanimous support from the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and would have implemented universal pre-K is expected to be taken up again when lawmakers begin their second session in January.

Rep. Tori Kornfield, D-Bangor, the education committee’s House chairwoman and the bill’s sponsor, said implementing universal pre-K in Maine would help solve issues of equity and ensure that all students have the same educational background coming into kindergarten.

“I think people are pretty much on the same page,” Kornfield said. “The questions are, ‘How do we do this?’ not ‘Should we do this?'”

In 2018-2019, Maine allocated $22 million to serve 5,944 children, not including federal funds or local district matches.

Officials have estimated it would cost the state about $48 million, not including local funds, to provide pre-K for all of Maine’s children, though it’s also unlikely all families would take advantage of such a program.

Caleb Haley, 4, plays with toys in his new classroom during pre-kindergarten drop-in day Thursday at Dunn Elementary School in New Gloucester, before the start of school this week. Dunn Elementary has expanded to three classrooms and still has a wait list for public pre-kindergarten. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, another member of the education committee, said access to early childhood learning for all students should be a priority, though the state needs to be careful about not saddling local taxpayers with the cost.

“It’s reducing things like public assistance and incarceration down the road,” Pouliot said. “It’s a long-term investment in the future of Maine.”

One of the biggest challenges for districts in addition to cost when it comes to adding pre-K programs is having the physical space to accommodate new classrooms.

Those who want to add or increase programs now have access to state funds, but expansion has been slow as many districts struggle to accommodate an extra grade level, said Sue Reed, early childhood specialist at the DOE.

“I would say a major reason why districts don’t expand is they don’t have space in their buildings,” she said.

She also cautioned that as districts and the state consider expanding pre-K programs there needs to be a focus on quality of education, something the state is currently looking at via a $1 million planning grant awarded in January to study and improve early childhood learning.

In the Saco School Department, which is adding about 70 pre-K seats spread out among five classrooms this fall, the district is having to lease space in a community center and church to house the new programs.

Students, parents and teachers mingle during pre-kindergarten drop-in day last week at Dunn Elementary School in New Gloucester. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Superintendent Dominic DePatsy said, however, that there has been strong demand for pre-K and it offers an advantage to the district by getting to know students at an earlier age.

“Our curriculum is very strong both in academics and the social emotional,” he said. “It ties into our curriculum in K, 1 and 2. Sometimes if kids are in a private pre-K we don’t get to know them until kindergarten. We want to get to know them younger and how we can help them. The research shows there’s more we can do when we get kids at a younger age.”

Some districts have addressed the problem by capitalizing on partnerships with private programs or the federal Head Start program. About 33 percent of Maine’s existing pre-K programs are currently run through such partnerships, according to the DOE.

In New Gloucester, space constraints have made it so the district’s three pre-K classrooms are housed in a building with third-and fourth-graders. The school has made it work by encouraging relationships between the younger and older students through activities like having the older students come read to their younger peers.

When classes start this week, students in Melissa Kraus’ classroom will get an introduction to daily routines, learn about the calendar and pick weather-appropriate outfits for a “weather bear” that hangs on the wall.

Those skills, along with others like learning to read and write their names and identify the letters of the alphabet, will come in handy when the students head to kindergarten next year.

“It’s great to have this early start,” Kraus said. “Each session is a good introduction to working on social skills, academics and how to be in a classroom. I love watching them learn and watching those light bulbs go off.”

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