2017-10-27 / Community News

Officials expecting an early education mandate

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

The Scarborough School department serves 2,900 students in kindergarten to 12th grade, but could in the future, depending on space availability, be providing preschool and child development services to students before they enter kindergarten.

“We don’t know exactly what the timeline will be, but (the Maine Department of Education) is talking about school systems taking on the responsibility of providing child development services for students ages 3,4 and 5,” Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said at a board of education meeting earlier this month.

“We’ve been thinking a lot about how can we use our existing space to meet that mandate if, and when, it comes and what sort of potential improvements that may need to occur,” Kukenberger said.

Maine Department of Education Early Education Specialist Sue Reed said implementing preschool programs is not required, but is strongly encouraged.

“There is no requirement for districts to have public preschools,” Reed said.

While most school districts offer kindergarten, Reed said state law indicates students must be enrolled in formal education by the time they are seven years old.

Reed said beginning in 2018-2019, school districts that are looking to start, or expand public preschool programs beginning in July 2018 will get upfront money to do so. Reed said for the last three or four years, districts have had to foot the cost upfront and then get reimbursed later through their state subsidy allocation.

Reed said the Department of Education (DOE) sent a notice out to all superintendents in the state asking them if they were interested in starting or expanding preschool education in their communities. Responses will be collected through Tuesday, Oct. 31. How much money will be needed, she said, will depend on how much interest there is.

It is a step that many superintendents have already taken. Reed said 72 percent of school districts in Maine have some form of public preschool, although it may not make sense in a community like Scarborough.

“In a district like Scarborough, you have a lot of private preschools and for the most part you have families that can afford that,” Reed said.

For years, the state, through its Child Development Services program, has been responsible for administering special education services for children under 5 years old, but a new push by the state may change that. The Department of Education has proposed the shifting of services for ages 3 to school age from the state to local school systems. This, according to a September news release from the DOE, includes “case management, child find, evaluation, eligibility determination, individual education program development” and other special education, and related, services.

The change is being made, the DOE said, “to transform the current model to better address the needs of children with disabilities by decreasing their transitions between programs at an early age, providing more frequent, appropriate and timely services closer to home, and introducing an earlier integration into their local schools.”

How the shift happens is still being worked out, but Kukenberger said she had heard five of the nine CDS districts would take child development services in the 2018- 2019, with the remaining districts taking it on 2019-2020.

Whether the Scarborough School Department develops additonal early education programs, building a strong education foundation from a young age is something leaders in the district have focused on in recent years. For several years, teachers have been offering Jump Start, an intensive six-week summer literacy program aimed at making sure children are academically and socially reading for kindergarten in the fall and in 2015 introduced Kindergarten Kamp, a shorter program for children with some literacy, math and fine motor skill introduction.

“The research is compelling and everyone is finally listening to what a smart investment early intervention is in the long run,” Kukenberger said. “We know it costs far less to support a child when they are 2, 3, 4, 5 than it does to wait until they are older – say third grade – and we realize there are learning gaps that could have been addressed earlier. Early intervention is the movement. Maine is right on track thinking about that.”

In terms of some sort of public preschool program, that is a topic Scarborough education officials have been talking about for some time. Scarborough met with Reed about starting a public preschool program in Scarborough in a workshop session back in April 2016 and are still, 18 months later examining how it could work in town.

Although how it would look in Scarborough could be different than how it looks in other communities, the school district’s preschool program would have to cap class sizes at 16 students and have “curriculum practices that align with the Maine Early Learning and Development Standards” that involve individual, small group and whole group activities including block building, plays, writing, art, music, science, math, literacy, sand or water lay, gross motor activities an mealtime routines over the course of 10 hours a week for at least 35 weeks (175 instructional days). The ratio has to be one teacher for every eight children.

Figuring out a way to provide educational services to students before they enter Scarborough schools, Kukenberger said, “be a big conversation in this (upcoming) budget cycle.”

The town had offered a public preschool program through the Community Services Department, but the school department did not oversee it and it was not free. The program was eliminated when the Bessworth building was razed as part of the construction on the new Wentworth School.

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

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