PORTLAND — A pre-kindergarten experience that provides plenty of support and encourages a love of learning is critical to not only building key school readiness skills, but setting the stage for overall academic success, according to Suzanne Chevalier, the new pre-kindergarten director for the Portland Public Schools.

Chevalier

Chevalier has experience in early childhood education, as well as coaching teachers, which is why her application stood out, said Melia Nalli, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.

Nalli said the School Department received 16 applications for the job, where the primary responsibility is overseeing the growth of pre-K classrooms throughout the schools. A plan to create 140 new seats for pre-K students over the next five years is part of the $117.4 million school budget, which was approved in June.

Nalli said Chevalier was one of four finalists for the position. She has worked for the Portland schools for the past eight years, most recently as an English language learner teacher at Reiche and Riverton elementary schools.

“She was truly the dream candidate,” Nalli said. “She brings a combination of highly relevant background experience and the skills and disposition needed to lead our public pre-K program forward.”

Chevalier, who is already on the job, has a starting annual salary of more than $98,000.

Earlier this summer Nalli told the School Board the pre-K director’s responsibilities consists of about “five different jobs,” including strategy, coaching, supervision of staff, and curriculum planning.

The goal for the upcoming academic year is to add two new pre-K classrooms, one at Amanda Rowe Elementary School and one at the East End Community School, while also putting into place before-and after-school care options. The extended day services won’t be available until January 2020, Nalli told the School Board.

In addition to Chevalier, the School Department is hiring two new pre-K classroom teachers and two new educational technicians to provide support.

Chevalier said she applied for the director’s position because “as a former pre-K teacher, I’ve always recognized what a special and critical time the early childhood years are, in terms of setting the stage for a love of learning and for being part of a supportive classroom community.

“I’ve always believed in … the power of quality early childhood education and have been a strong advocate for providing opportunities to reach students where they are and offer them the best educational opportunities possible.”

Chevalier’s previous experience includes being an early literacy coach and director of professional development for an Early Reading First project at the University of Southern Maine; a research associate at the University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies; and an early childhood special education consultant for Child Development Services of Cumberland County, according to a School Department press release.

She holds a master’s degree in teaching from Tufts University, a bachelor’s degree in psychology and French from Bates College, and a Certificate in Advanced Study in educational leadership from the University of Southern Maine, along with several teaching credentials.

Chevalier said that high-quality early education can “improve (both) social-emotional and cognitive outcomes for children. Pre-school education should be viewed as an investment, especially for at-risk children.”

She said she sees the primary role of pre-K as providing “language-rich environments with responsive teachers who can help build a student’s background knowledge and vocabulary.” As the School Department expands its pre-K program, Chevalier said she also wants to ensure that the district is working effectively with parents, caregivers and community partners.

“Helping students learn how to self-regulate, be a successful part of a classroom community, take care of themselves and others, and engage in a balance of teacher-led and student-initiated learning experiences are also important goals,” Chevalier said.

While working to get the two new pre-K classrooms up and running, Chevalier said she’s also spending a lot of time this summer “doing a great deal of collaborating, fact-finding and learning more about past practices and the structures currently in place. I’m also working on forging positive relationships with pre-K teachers, ed techs, building leaders, and other partners in the work.”

What she’s most looking forward to, she said, is ensuring that all Portland 4-year-olds will someday be able to access free, quality pre-K programming.

“I’m fully committed to realizing the goals that the School Board and administration have set forth for this work, (while also) being thoughtful and intentional as we add programs and services,” Chevalier said.


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