Kim Jordan, a kindergarten teacher at Coffin Elementary School in Brunswick, reads to her students. Brunswick plans to add a public pre-kindergarten program within the next two years. (Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — If Catie Meier could find a cost-effective private pre-kindergarten for her son, Christian, she would be “lining up at 4 a.m. to get a spot like it was black Friday,” she said.

Unfortunately, pre-K and “cost-effective” are two terms that often don’t go together, so when Christian is ready to start school next fall (and he’s already raring to go), Meier, a Topsham resident, will probably try to get him in one of Maine School Administrative District 75’s 32 pre-K slots.

“Our first choice would be a private, in-home program, but they’re pricey,” she said. “As much as it stinks to say, it comes down to price sometimes.“

A former childcare provider herself, Meier feels that cost aside, pre-K is a valuable transition for children before entering the formal world of K-12 education.

Haley Bernier, a Brunswick resident, said her son Max was not quite ready for kindergarten when he turned 5, so she had to scramble to find an option that fit his needs.

“If we had the option of public pre-K for either of my kids we would have jumped on it,” she said.

This, according to Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski, has been a common theme since he joined the district 11 years ago. “Everyone always asks when we’re going to have pre-K,” he said.

The Brunswick School Department plans to launch a full pre-K program when the new Kate Furbish Elementary School opens in 2020, though support from the state might abllow the district to open 30 slots for half-day pre-K at the Coffin School as soon as next year, according to Perzanoski.

Ultimately, the district hopes to serve as many as 120 pre-K students in the four classrooms already designated in the $20 million, 70,900-square-foot Kate Furbish school, located on the site of the former Jordan Acres School.

The Maine State Legislature has provided start-up funding in the fiscal year 2019 state budget for public school districts to begin new or expand preschool classrooms, and when it comes to funding from the state, Perzanoski said that in his experience it is better to “strike while the iron is hot.”

This is a rendering of what the new Kate Furbish Elementary School will look like at the site of the now-defunct Jordan Acres School. It is slated to open in 2020 with four designated pre-kindergarten classrooms; a first for Brunswick. (Photo courtesy of PDT Architects)

Since district officials are still trying to determine the details of a program — how long the day might be, how the curriculum would be set up, how they would work out transportation — there is still too much up in the air to say what will happen next year. Bernier and Meier both said they were most in support of a full day program.

It’s very hard to find a (private) five-day, full-day program,” Bernier said, “and now most households have two working parents.”

A pre-K committee will be formed in early 2019 to help answer some of these questions.

But no matter the technical issues, Perzanoski feels confident this is something that is needed in Brunswick.

“It allows us to build relationships with the families earlier, prepares kids for the school environment, which can be hard to adjust to,” he said, as well as building important social-emotional skills. Perhaps even more important, public pre-K allows economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities to start early and be on the same playing field with their peers, he said.

Neighboring district MSAD 75, which includes the towns of Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Harpswell, introduced its new full-day pre-K program this year, with one class at Williams-Cone School and another at Midcoast Maine Community Action’s Head Start location at Cook’s Corner in Brunswick. The district received about $265,000 in state subsidy to fund the startup.

The bridge from home to Kindergarten

Brooke Wilmeth, the pre-K teacher at Williams-Cone and Jodi Haskell, an educational technician in Wilmeth’s classroom, say pre-K is an important step for many children.

“It’s that bridge from home to Kindergarten,” Haskell said. Using the “Opening the World of Learning” curriculum, their day includes a lot of free play, but also structured, hands-on learning, outside time, rest, stories and, above all else, social-emotional skills building. While Wilmeth and Haskell still have to deal with bathroom accidents, tantrums and spilled yogurt, they also get to see their students start building confidence, learn to play with others and connect with books.

“They’re just little sponges,” Wilmeth said. “Some days it feels like we’re going back to square one but they’re doing a great job.”

The students eat lunch in the classroom and do not attend “specials” like art and music. For now, their school world is contained just to their classroom. “We want it to be a kind of safe haven for them,” Haskell said, and to give them a positive sense of what school can be like. Although their brains are constantly working and moving, and some struggle more than others, “their brains aren’t ready for school yet,” Wilmeth said, adding that pre-K helps that development.

“Four-year-olds are very different developmentally than 5-year-olds,” agreed Carrie Thomas, a kindergarten teacher at Coffin School. Thomas and Kim Jordan, another Kindergarten teacher, are excited about the possibility of public pre-K in Brunswick.

“By the time kids reach kindergarten they have had varied experiences,” Thomas said, and those are significant enough that it can present challenges when teaching. While not all kids will go through the Brunswick pre-K, it would give teachers a better idea of what many of their students have learned and where they are with their social-emotional skills.

It would also help make the start of the year easier if most of the kids already knew how to sit during story time or line up for class. The first six weeks of school are devoted to procedural lessons, Thomas said.

“I spent an entire lesson on how to use glue,” Jordan added.

A drawing in Brooke Wilmeth’s pre-K classroom shows students how to sit down during circle and story times. Pre-K helps students learn seemingly simple things like how to sit and how to stand in line before they go to Kindergarten, she said. (Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record)

Aside from teaching the students time limits, flexibility and school routines, it would also level the playing field for students with disabilities and who may not have enough money for private pre-K, they agreed.

Weighing the financial burden

For many low-income families, the cost of tuition has remained a barrier to enrolling their children in many existing pre-K programs.

For example, at the nonprofit Family Focus learning centers in Bath and Brunswick, pre-K tuition for children not subsidized through state or other programs ranges from $108 for up to 19 hours of programming, to $203 for 45 or more hours of programming.

Pre-K programs through Brunswick Parks and Recreation for residents ranges from $122 a month for a two-day-a-week program to $302 for a five-day program. That price increases for non-residents.

Yet, a pre-K education would be a boon for many students from low-income families. According to a 2018 report from Educate Maine, “If all Maine students had full-time early education from birth to kindergarten, over 1,000 more economically disadvantaged students would graduate from high school.”

The report also showed that as of this year, 75 percent of Maine school districts offered public pre-K, with a goal of 100 percent by next year. This is a dramatic rise from 2008 when only 24 percent of school districts offered it. Comparatively, only 44 percent of 4-year-olds were actually enrolled in public pre-K, with a goal of 64 percent by next year. Perzanoski said that likely not all Brunswick 4-year-olds would be signed up, but that many would.

Start-up funding from the state could be crucial, though, in helping to alleviate the financial burden on the taxpayers, Perzanoski said.

Rough estimates show more than $584,000 in startup costs alone with approximately $83,000 in salaries and benefits each for four teachers, and another $53,000 for each of the four educational technicians. Plus, Perzanoski said, there would be roughly $10,000 needed for furniture and other items for each of the classrooms. This also does not factor in the reallocation of time for the school therapists or the potential rescheduling for specialty teachers in classes like physical education, art or music.

“Like everything else, it’s not without its costs, but we have evidence to back it up,” said Topsham Police Chief Chris Lewis, an advocate for early childhood education who works with Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. In many studies, early childhood education has been linked with a reduction in crime rates. Fight Crime, Invest in Kids is a national organization of thousands of police chiefs, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials dedicated to helping create solutions to keep kids away from crime.

“Ultimately our best opportunity to improve public safety is to keep people from becoming involved in crime in the first place,” the organization said in an email. “Maine spends nearly $167 million a year on corrections. The choice is simple: Pay for high-quality early care and education programs now, or pay far more later for the costs of crime.”

A community survey designed to gauge Brunswick families’ interest in a pre-K program garnered 189 responses, which Perzanoski said is consistent with grade level cohorts and is about what they anticipated. Results showed 91 percent of respondents were interested in pre-K and 89 percent who said they plan to enroll their children in pre-K. The survey also showed the people were more interested in a five-days-per-week program.“

This has been a topic of conversation for a long time,” Perzanoski said. The district first launched full-day kindergarten in the 2009/10 school year, and had a pre-K ready to go at about the same time in 2010 but had nowhere to put it.

With the new school, however, there seemed a perfect opportunity, although some local private daycares have expressed concerns that a public pre-K might be a detriment to their businesses. According to Perzanoski though, the school district wants to “engage them in the conversation” and figure out a way that they can co-exist peacefully. For example, he said, perhaps students could spend half the day at the school and half at facilities like the Learning Land Nursery School or Family Focus.

Bernier, while a parent in support of public pre-K, is also a teacher at Pathways Early Learning Center.

“It’s awesome for parents and I tell them they have to do what they have to do,” but she does worry about what will happen if Brunswick gets a pre-K. When MSAD 75 started its program Bernier and her coworkers lost several kids and have had a hard time filling those slots since. Outsourcing to other preschools might be one way for her and her coworkers to protect their livelihoods.

“It’s a great step for the school department,” she said, “but I hope they’re thorough” in exploring their options.

With so much to consider before next year and before the new Kate Furbish School opens, Perzanoski said “it’s important to have this time to plan.”

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