SOUTH PORTLAND — Thanks to a $125,000 grant, the city next year will expand public preschool education to 4-year-olds at Kaler Elementary School.

The expansion is the latest step in the School Department’s goal of universal preschool access by 2015, Superintendent Suzanne Godin said. It comes two years after the district opened its first public preschool, which serves future Skillin and and Brown elementary school students, at the Opportunity Alliance Family Center at 50 Lydia Lane.

Like the Brick Hill preschool, Kaler was targeted for preschool expansion because of the neighborhood’s high poverty rate (54 percent) and problems with kindergarten truancy, which Godin said can predict future drop-out rates. 

“Truancy rates in South Portland are highest in kindergarten, and students who miss that much school are at risk of failure or dropping out,” she said. “We’re trying to instill that love of learning early on, and the foundation that learning is important.”

The district has had good luck with preschool. The first 12 students who attended pre-K classes at Brick Hill all navigated kindergarten this year with no need for any additional support, Godin said. 

The next 12 students, who will start kindergarten next year, also seem prepared, she said.

Kindergarten students entering school unprepared for the standard curriculum is a growing problem in South Portland, probably because of declining levels of adult literacy.

School Board Chairman Tappan Fitzgerald said a successful preschool program will level the playing field. 

“Some kids are fortunate enough to know their letters, numbers and colors, things like that,” Fitzgerald said. “Others show up and don’t have that information. This is going to be a great program, and the kids will really flourish with it.”

In its first year, the Kaler program will be funded almost entirely by a $125,000 grant from Portland’s Great Bay Foundation. The district will also contribute about $30,000 in the form of in-kind materials and professional development. Most of the funding will go to the cost of teacher and education technician salaries.

Next year, Fitzgerald and Godin predicted, the district will absorb the total cost of the program. Fitzgerald said funding might be found through savings the district hopes to realize in the coming fiscal year. 

“Our hope is not to raise the budget at all but, in my opinion, this is probably some of the most important work that the School Board and the superintendent have ever done.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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