TOPSHAM — School Administrative District 75 next fall may for the first time admit 4-year-olds in a pre-kindergarten program.

A task force composed of parents, staff and SAD 75 directors has met since June to research implementation the program. The work has included discussions with the pre-kindergarten coordinator in neighboring Regional School Unit 1.

“We’re looking into the possibility at this point, so nothing is a done deal,” Assistant Superintendent Dan Chuhta said Dec. 18, noting that the study has been one of the School Board’s goals for 2016-18.

“We’re looking for starting in the fall (of 2018) for the first group,” he said.

A survey of SAD 75 families, which received 243 responses, found that 84.8 percent of respondents would enroll their children in preschool at age 4, regardless of whether the district provided the program. If a public pre-K program were provided, 86.8 percent would enroll their children, respondents said.

Those interested in the program noted the importance of it being accessible to working families, and felt that pre-K gives helps children improve self-regulation and social skills while boosting their preparedness for kindergarten, according to Chuhta.

Those who were not interested were concerned about issues such as how appropriate such programming would be for development; the length of the school day; funding and government involvement; the focus on academics versus play-based opportunities to learn; before and after care; transportation, and discontinuing an existing relationship with a private care provider.

Chuhta said pre-K programming helps 4-year-olds hone an array of development skills – not just academic, but also physical, social and emotional.

“We’re not looking for it to be a mini-kindergarten,” he said. “… We recognize there are some skills that will help kids be good learners, and if we can help them develop those skills then when they do get to kindergarten, they’ll be ready to rock and roll with their letters and so forth.”

The state budget has added an element to allow districts to receive up-front funding for pre-K programs, as opposed to subsidies coming later, Chuhta said.

“So now we would put figures in ahead of time, and then (the state) would factor those in for the next school year,” he said. “So that’s a benefit … the up-front costs would be covered.”

The task force must decide what the district’s enrollment criteria would be.

“One of the lessons that we heard from places that have done this before is to start small and build capacity,” Chuhta said. “We may have a class or two classes, and probably based on our survey would have more interest than (space), so we’ll have to make some sort of selection criteria.”

The district would apply to the Maine Department of Education in late winter or spring to authorize the program, after the SAD 75 board approves the application, Chuhta said.

“Our next steps will be to start to get into the details of transportation, location, numbers, and selection enrollment criteria,” he said. “There’s a whole host of things to look into.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.