PORTLAND — School officials are developing a plan to greatly increase the number of pre-kindergarten classrooms for 4-year-olds in the city’s public schools.

By next fall, Superintendent Jim Morse and others hope to double the number of pre-kindergarten classrooms to six and seek outside funding that may ensure all 4-year-olds in Portland have access to quality education.

Morse said an expanded pre-kindergarten program is the best way to reduce the need for remedial education in upper grades and propel students toward success in life.

“Preschool is the long-term solution to the literacy and dropout concerns we have now,” Morse said. “Right now, our efforts are focused on high school, but preschool is when youngsters are most open to efforts to address readiness for school.”

The district has long had two Head Start pre-kindergarten classrooms, now at the Riverton and East End community schools and sponsored by PROP, a community social service agency. They serve 4-year-olds from low-income families.

This fall, the district established a third state-certified, multi-age pre-kindergarten at the Early Learning Center at Portland Arts and Technology High School.

The center continues to provide lab experience for students in PATHS’ early childhood occupations program, taught by Irving Williams. It serves 26 children, ages 2 to 4, with 14 girls and 12 boys. Twenty percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 16 percent have special education needs and 11 percent first spoke a language other than English.

There are about 150 pre-kindergarten classrooms in public schools across Maine, mostly in districts where state funding is closer to the actual cost of educating students, Williams said.

Portland contracted with the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery in the West End to provide a certified, non-union teacher for $30,000, Williams said. The district sought an outside agency to help jump-start its pre-kindergarten expansion after forming a task force in the spring that included early childhood educators and day-care providers.

Now, the district is seeking a $20,000, two-year grant from the Sam L. Cohen Foundation to plan the expansion, which would cost about $100,000 per classroom, based on union salaries and benefits.

Any additional pre-kindergarten classrooms would be subject to funding availability and School Committee approval during budget talks next spring.

A work group led by Williams is investigating the potential costs and logistics of an expansion. The district’s elementary schools are full, so the three additional pre-kindergarten classrooms could be off campus, Williams said.

The district would need about 15 classrooms to serve the 450 to 500 4-year-olds in Portland each year, Williams said.

At the same time, the district has resumed efforts to seek outside funding to establish an Educare pre-kindergarten facility like the $9 million, 200-student school that opened this fall in Waterville.

It’s one of more than a dozen Educare centers across the nation that have been built or planned through the Bounce Learning Network, which forges public-private partnerships to give disadvantaged students a platform for success.

The school in Waterville was funded with a $3 million lead donation from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, led by part-time Rockport resident Doris Buffett, sister of renowned businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett.

Other funding came from the Alfond, Kaiser and Kellogg foundations and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

To establish an Educare facility in Portland, the district must secure a similar lead donation and raise matching funding from various sources, Morse said.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]