2016-05-06 / Community News

Town is looking into free public preschool

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

Three years ago the Scarborough School Department began offering Jumpstart, a six-week summer intensive literacy program aimed at making sure children are academically and socially ready for kindergarten. Last year, Kindergarten Kamp, a three-week program, was introduced for children with some experience with literacy, math and fine motor skill instruction.

Eight Corners Primary School Principal Anne Lovejoy said last summer approximately 60 children participated in Jumpstart, which will be offered again this summer beginning July 5. Kindergarten Kamp will run from July 5 to July 21 and again from July 25 to Aug. 11. Transportation is available for both.

Last week, the board of education met with Susan Reed, an early childhood specialist with the Maine Department of Education about starting a free public preschool program in Scarborough.

Lovejoy said for many years, Scarborough did offer public preschool through the Community Services department, although there was no school department oversight and it was not free. The program was eliminated when the Bessworth building was torn down to make way for the parking lot of the new Wentworth School. Board member Kelly Murphy said tuition was at most the cost of the cheapest private preschool in town.

More and more school districts, Reed said, are starting public preschool programs. Close to 70 percent of districts that offer kindergarten also offer preschool.

“When children are in high quality preschools, the need for remedial services when they get to school decreases, so it is a cost saving and most people know early intervention is important,” Reed said.

While there are state requirements as to class size (16 students), student to teacher ratio (8:1) and weekly offering (at least 10 hours a week), the key to a successful public preschool program is for a school board to develop one that meets the specific needs in a community.

Some districts specifically target which students they want to be in the public preschool, which Reed said is “perfectly legal.” Others offer spots through a lottery-style selection. Some do a combination of the two. Some hold slots open for children with special needs.

The Portland School District, for example, stipulates 70 percent of the students that attend the public preschool program qualify for free and reduced lunch. South Portland offers two public preschool programs, one at Opportunity Alliance on Lydia Lane and the other at Kaler Elementary School on South Kelsey Street. Cape Elizabeth offers preschool through the town recreation department.

“There is no one right way to do it. You really need to look at the needs of your town,” Reed said.

Reed said there is no doubt that a public preschool program impacts the private preschools and day cares that already operate in a community. That is why it will be important for the board of education to connect with those providers so they know what Scarborough Public Schools will be providing if the board decides to go through with the idea.

“My recommendation is you be upfront with private providers because you may impact their business,” Reed said.

Some communities partner with private preschool providers and buy slots at their preschools to better offer preschool to children and their families free of charge. In order to do this, Reed said the private provider must be nationally accredited and meet other requirements.

Lovejoy said since Jumpstart started, primary school staff has started to develop a relationship with private preschool provid- ers and recently met with a “consortium of local preschools and day cares” at Scarborough Public Library to talk about what children need to know before they get to kindergarten.

“It was a great opportunity to tell them what K is looking for versus what they think K is looking for,” Lovejoy said, adding that social/emotional and physical development is “just as important as academic skills.”

Anne Cass, assistant principal at Blue Point and Pleasant Hill primary schools, said the meeting “was a really great opportunity to link the Ks, the preschools and the library.”

Reed said the best private preschool arrangement for Scarborough is not something that can be decided overnight.

“I really recommend a district take a whole year and really get the information you need to make a decision,” Reed said.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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