WATERVILLE – U.S. Sen. Susan Collins touted the importance of funding early childhood education programs Friday as she toured the first rural Educare facility in the United States.

“I’m so impressed,” she said of Educare Central Maine, which opened last year on Drummond Avenue. “It’s extremely well-designed. It’s very child-friendly yet it also has resource rooms for teachers and parents. It’s just terrific.”

Educare serves 210 children from five weeks to 5 years old. The school focuses on maximizing brain development and ensuring healthy families.

The goal is to see that the children, who are mostly from low-income families and considered at-risk, enter kindergarten engaged, healthy and ready to succeed, both socially and emotionally.

The school also serves as a teaching lab for parents, teachers and college students.

The Waterville Educare is one of 12 in the United States and is the only one in the Northeast. “This is definitely a model for not only Maine, but for the nation,” Collins said.

Collins, R-Maine, serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees funding for federal education initiatives, including Head Start.

Before taking a tour of the school, Collins said she has been working through the appropriation process to help Maine get more schools like the one in Waterville.

But with a moratorium on earmarks and project spending, Collins said she wants to work with Educare to find federal funding through existing grant programs.

Educare, she said, is important and innovative because it combines child care, early childhood education, training for educators and, most importantly, involves families.

“That (family aspect) is absolutely critical to the success of a program like this,” Collins said.

Collins read a book about a moose called “Antlers Forever” by Maine author Frances Bloxam to 13 children ages 3 to 5, who gathered at her feet.

The senator told the group of children that the book is one of her favorites and that she loves to read.

“Maybe one day one of you might grow up to write books,” she said. “I think that’d be neat.”

The senator told the children that if they become good readers, they can be whatever they want to be in the world.

Collins also said she reads every night before she goes to sleep.

“It’s one of my favorite things to do,” she said.