In September, a preschool center will open in Waterville that will raise the bar for the future of education across Maine, according to first lady Karen Baldacci.

Educare Central Maine, under construction on Drummond Avenue, will serve about 200 children from birth to age 5, mostly from low-income families.

The $9 million center will be attached to nearby George Mitchell Elementary School, where about half of the students tested in a recent kindergarten screening weren’t prepared to start school. It’s a situation that Baldacci knows well from her early days as a kindergarten teacher in Bangor.

“My first year teaching kindergarten, 50 percent of the students in my class weren’t ready to learn,” Baldacci said. “I think we can do better.”

Baldacci is a champion of Educare Central Maine, which will be the first comprehensive, high-quality early childhood learning center of its kind in New England.

It’s modeled after 10 other Educare centers across the nation that have been built or planned through the Bounce Learning Network, which forges public-private partnerships to give at-risk children a platform for success. Educare centers are operating in Chicago, Denver, Miami, Milwaukee, Omaha, Seattle and Tulsa.

The centers emphasize the importance of education before age 5, when children’s brains are developing, as a way to reduce special education costs, dropout rates, crime rates and social service costs.

“It’s the solution to many problems,” Baldacci said. “If you wait until they’re 5, for some kids, it’s too late.”

Educare Central Maine was funded with a $3 million lead donation from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, headed by part-time Rockport resident Doris Buffett, sister of renowned businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett. Other funding included $3 million from the Alfond, Kaiser and Kellogg foundations and $2 million in federal economic recovery money.

Organizers are raising an additional $2 million in private donations to fund an endowment to help cover the center’s operational costs, said Allyson Karter, the project’s development coordinator.

The center will be open to Waterville-area children based on economic need. Parents will be charged according to their ability to pay.

Karter said interest in the center is strong and need is expected to exceed its capacity, with 64 percent of local families qualifying for free or subsidized school lunches.

The 35,000-square-foot center will be as large as a typical elementary school and will have more than 50 rooms, including classrooms, offices, conference rooms and play spaces.

It is being built according to green design standards by Ledgewood Construction of South Portland and is expected to be certified for energy efficiency and environmental sustainability by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The center will be overseen by the Waterville School Department, Head Start of the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, the Bill and Joan Alfond Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.

Doris Buffett has pledged an additional $3 million from the Sunshine Lady Foundation to build a second Educare center in Maine, possibly in a high-need community such as Lewiston, Bangor or Portland, Baldacci said.

If Baldacci has her way, every community in Maine will soon offer similar options for quality early childhood education.

“It’s the final frontier in education,” Baldacci said. “We need to give every child an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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