PORTLAND – Superintendent Jim Morse announced an ambitious plan Friday to give all 4-year-olds in the city the option of preschool by 2015. Providing that option, he said, would help close a gap that exists between pupils when they enter kindergarten.

School officials also made a financial argument Friday for preschool, saying it would reduce the district’s large “remediation costs” as it tries to get lagging students up to speed, socially and academically.

“About 52 percent of Maine lives in poverty,” Morse said. “That means a lot of youngsters start out at a disadvantage.”

The announcement came at a joint news conference at Riverton Elementary School with Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit military organization composed of 250 retired generals.

In addition to supporting Morse’s plan, visiting military brass urged state and federal lawmakers to provide funding for mandatory preschool across the country. Retired Vice Adm. J.D. Williams called it “vital to our nation’s national security.”

About 75 percent of young adults in America are unfit for military service, mostly because of academic weaknesses, obesity and arrest records, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Although a high school diploma is nearly essential to get into the military, statistics show that about 21 percent of Maine’s high school students do not graduate, Williams said. Another 19 percent can’t enlist because of low scores in math, reading and problem solving on the military’s entrance exam.

While that’s not nearly as bad as some other states — 49 percent of Nevada’s students don’t graduate from high school and 38 percent of Mississippians who do graduate can’t pass the entrance test — Maine’s numbers are higher than those of many Midwestern, West Coast and New England states.

Studies have shown major gains in students’ academic and social success if they attend preschool, the retired military officials said, so mandatory preschool would help broaden the military’s candidate pool and make it a more innovative, efficient and more powerful organization.

“We tend to think about our military today in terms of its hardware: tanks, jets, and smart weapons,” wrote retired Army Maj. Gen. John Libby, who was helping with flooding in Vermont but had prepared marks read on his behalf. “But I can tell you from personal experience that the most important resource for our armed forces is the young men and women who … guarantee our security each and every day.”

The news conference appeared to target the state Legislature, which has increased funding for preschool programs but, according to Mission: Readiness officials, not enough.

A comprehensive education reform bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, would force Maine’s education commissioner to increase preschool funding 10 percent each year until the state has universal preschool, said Kim Gore, the state’s director for Mission: Readiness.

Although the Legislature’s Education Committee heard the bill in May, Gore said, the Legislature tabled it until next year’s session.

Portland has more than doubled its preschool offerings, from about 30 students two years ago to upward of 70 this year, Morse said. He would like to double it again in each of the next two years.

This year, the district allocated about $100,000 of its $89 million budget to preschool programs. It also partnered with Head Start, a federally funded preschool program, and Catherine Morrill Day Nursery on Danforth Street to provide teachers, aides, funding and accreditation to the district’s preschool initiatives.

Although there are about 500 4-year-olds in the city every year, the city needs to provide only 350 to 400 slots. Some parents prefer to keep their children at home until kindergarten, or send their children to private preschools, Morse said.

Without federal help or partnerships, it would cost $9,000 to $10,000 per year per student to provide preschool. Although expanding the program will force the district to spend more, administrators hope to find more private partners like Catherine Morrill Day Nursery to help with costs and logistics, said David Galin, chief academic officer for Portland schools.

The district is negotiating with two other private providers on a partnership for the 2012-13 school year, said Galin, who declined to name them because nothing is official.

Preschool not only helps children with basic number skills and literacy, officials said, it helps them cope socially in a classroom. And simple acts like reading two or three short books to children on a daily basis before they turn 5 can help them acquire skills that will prove invaluable.

“Studies show they need to hear it — it literally impacts how the brain forms,” Galin said. “Not all 4-year-olds get that from their parents, and if you are behind, you almost never fully catch up. … The longer we have to work with students in the schools, the more successful those students are.”

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at:

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