SOUTH PORTLAND — South Portland expects to launch a pilot preschool program next month with a dozen students.

The district is starting the program to address a widening achievement gap between students who have had formal early childhood education and those who have not. This school year, 40 to 50 of the district’s 250 kindergartners were identified as needing intervention because they lacked literacy, language and social skills, according to Superintendent Suzanne Godin.

School officials expect the program will begin Feb. 28 in space provided by Youth Services Ingraham at 50 Lydia Lane, in the Brickhill neighborhood.

The program is open to children who live in the districts for Skillin and Brown elementary schools. A lottery will be held if more than a dozen eligible students apply. Applications will be accepted through Feb. 1.

Godin hopes that the pilot program represents a step toward offering public preschool to all 4-year-old children in South Portland whose families want to enroll them. Preschool would not be mandatory.

South Portland is using federal stimulus funding for the pilot, which is projected to cost less than $130,000. Godin said the district is working to get grants for next year and hopes to expand the program to include preschoolers from the Kaler school neighborhood.

The program would be eligible for state funding in the 2012-13 school year. The hope is to offer preschool district-wide by 2015, Godin said.

“It’s exciting to be part of the first wave,” said Margaret Hawkins, principal of Brown Elementary School.

Hawkins said more kindergartners are entering school without having attended preschool, where their peers pick up skills related to language development and social interaction. The children may not understand how books work — that pages and print run from left to right, for example. They may not be used to interacting with other children or know how to sit and listen.

Hawkins noted that South Portland no longer has Head Start programs. She thinks the economy has also played a role, with some families unable to afford private preschool.

The district is working on the pilot program with the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. The school will train the staff — a teacher and an education technician — in the curriculum, which is called Opening the World of Learning and has a strong focus on language and literacy.

The Muskie school has trained staff members using the same curriculum in Head Start programs in Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, and in a child care program in Biddeford.

The aim in all cases is to provide intensive language and literacy programs to preschoolers who are at risk of failing in school. The biggest risk factor is poverty, and the next is not speaking English as a first language, said Sue Reed, the Muskie school’s director of early care and education initiatives.

“Your vocabulary at 3 can predict your third-grade reading outcomes,” Reed said. “The older you get, the harder it is to remediate.” 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

[email protected]