Melodie Tims, pre-K ed-tech, helps Shelby write her name on her painting during the first day of pre-K classes at Coffin School on Tuesday. Hannah LaCLaire/The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — When the buses pulled into the Coffin School bus circle Tuesday morning to drop off Brunswick’s newest group of students, Assistant Principal Annie Young said she couldn’t even see their little heads over the seats.

Buckled in and sitting upfront with their legs swinging, the 4-year-olds are the district’s youngest-ever students, and Tuesday and Wednesday morning marked the first day of school for the two pre-kindergarten classes, with 15 starting Tuesday and 15 starting Wednesday. It is a pilot program for the district, which announced the class in early June, when many parents had already registered their children for private pre-K. Despite the late announcement, the 30 available slots filled up quickly, and Young said Tuesday there are 10 students on the waitlist.

The day started with some free play, moving into story time, a morning snack, recess, more structured and exploratory play and small group learning before lunch. Then they worked on songs, words and letters before a rest, and finished the day with another recess, snack and group time. There were plenty of “wiggle breaks” throughout the day.

The curriculum is play-based, with a focus on social-emotional learning and literacy and has many Maine themes throughout, Young said, adding that staff received a lot of professional development from the state over the summer.

Cutler plays at the water table on the first day of school Tuesday. Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record

The play-based curriculum was visible in full effect late Tuesday morning, as teacher Brigitte Valente guided her students through various “centers,” allowing them to explore painting, blocks, drawing, writing, dramatic play, puzzles and more while also learning important social-emotional lessons about sharing, waiting their turn and making friends.

Isaac painted a “scribble” during his turn at the easel, mixing blues and reds, while Aster connected a series of colored blocks spanning the length of the table and Eli built a “spiky tower,” which he was excited to show off to Valente.

“Watching children learn and grow is such a treat,” Valente said as they played. “I believe early intervention is so critical. … You can see how their minds work and the connections they make.”

Valente said she was impressed with how well the students had done so far, handling story time, recess and a period called “thinking and feedback” remarkably well. The thinking and feedback is a time Valente said she was especially excited about — she taught public pre-K in another district last year and has also worked as a special education pre-K teacher, she said, but has never done that particular exercise before. It allows the kids to share their work and learn about both giving and receiving critical feedback from an early age.

This is just one of the many benefits and early skills that educators feel pre-K offers students, along with social-emotional skills, early literacy, and a stronger start for kindergarten.

It allows the schools to build relationships with families earlier and helps prepare kids for the school environment, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said last year, but perhaps more importantly, allows economically disadvantaged students whose families may not be able to afford private pre-K programs and students with disabilities to start early and be on the same playing field with their peers.

The current program includes two full-day sessions, each for two days per week (Mondays and Wednesdays for session one and Tuesdays and Thursdays for session two). A third, targeted session of “additional intervention” for 15 of the 30 students is on Fridays and focuses on services like speech and language or occupational therapy. All three classes run from 8:50 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Some students will still go to private pre-K programs on the days their class is not meeting, Young said.

While Tuesday was filled with many big “firsts,” it was also an important “last” for Coffin: the last first day of school, as students, teachers and administrators will usher in the 2020-21 school year at the new Kate Furbish Elementary School. There, Isaac, Aster, Eli and the rest of their classmates will start as kindergarteners and another, larger group of 4-year-olds will take their place.

Ultimately, the district hopes to serve as many as 120 pre-K students in four designated pre-K classrooms at the new 70,900-square-foot school, which recently cleared the halfway mark and is expected to open next fall.

Young’s position as assistant principal is also an indirect product of the pre-K program. Her position was created this year with the idea that another administrator will be needed with the additional enrollment and by starting this year, she will be able to help facilitate the transition into the new school.

Brunswick’s program joins nearly a dozen others getting off the ground this year, the Portland Press Herald reported Tuesday. Those programs are now part of the majority, making pre-K available in about 75% of Maine school districts, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Last spring, Gov. Janet Mills proposedspending an additional $7 million to expand pre-K across the state, though that money didn’t ultimately make it into the budget that was approved, the Press Herald reported.

In 2018-2019, Maine allocated $22 million to serve 5,944 children, not including federal funds or local district matches.

Officials have estimated it would cost the state about $48 million to provide pre-K for all of Maine’s children, though not all families choose to enroll in public pre-K.

The program in Brunswick carries a price tag of approximately $260,00, including salaries for Valente and Melodie Tims, an educational technician with 15 years of experience in nonprofit early childhood education, supplies, furniture and other enrollment-associated costs. The Maine State Legislature has provided start-up funding in the state budget for public school districts to begin new or expand preschool classrooms.

“The state will reimburse you in the same fiscal year, and we wanted to get started now so we could possibly be grandfathered in” for more funding when they expand the program in 2020, Perzanoski said when the program was announced.

It has not yet been determined what the program at Kate Furbish might look like, and the pre-K committee will monitor this year’s pilot program for ideas.

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