The new school year has begun and so has our expanded pre-kindergarten program. We’ve added two new pre-K classrooms this year and will continue to add more each year over the next five years in an effort to eventually offer pre-K to all Portland 4-year-olds who need it.

The pre-K expansion is just one of four new initiatives in the 2019-2020 budget embodying the goals of our Portland Promise, the Portland Public Schools’ strategic plan. Starting this month, I’m dedicating my columns to how each initiative will help us realize the four foundational goals in that plan: Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People.

My focus this month is our pre-K program expansion, which will help us realize our Equity goal. That goal pledges us to support each student’s particular path to achieving high standards and rooting out systemic or ongoing inequities.

As Maine’s largest and most diverse school system, Equity is essential to us. Unfortunately, however, our data shows that while our financially advantaged students compete on par with students from surrounding school districts, our financially disadvantaged students don’t have the same positive outcomes. We also have gaps in achievement for students of color and those learning to speak English.

We’re expanding pre-K because decades of research shows that quality pre-K can help reduce such gaps.

According to the “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,” a comprehensive 2017 report completed by a task force of interdisciplinary scientists, all students benefit from pre-K, but economically disadvantaged children and dual language learners show the greatest gains in learning.

In short, pre-K is an investment in our students, particularly at-risk students, to realize our Equity and Achievement goals.

In March, the Board voted to add nine new classrooms – 140 seats – to our pre-K program over the next five years. We’re adding two classrooms each year and one in the fifth year in an effort to achieve universal pre-K. Our program, begun in 2010, had grown to eight classrooms last school year, but still could serve only about 21 percent of our city’s 4-year-olds.

This year, we’ve begun the expansion by adding one classroom at East End Community School and another at Rowe Elementary School.

A study of the relationship between student need and current pre-K system capacity, conducted by the University of Southern Maine’s Data Innovation Project, showed we have insufficient programming in certain areas of the city. The selection of these two locations is an effort to address that imbalance.

Students in the pre-K program will demographically reflect the socio-economic make-up of the district overall, where 55 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

To ensure the success of our new pre-K initiative, we also have hired our first pre-K program director, Suzanne Chevalier, one of our elementary school teachers, who has many years of early childhood education experience.

We also are working to establish before- and after-school care options for our pre-K students. To take advantage of our expanded pre-K, those families need the same kind of extended childcare services we offer to families of K-5 students. Services for pre-K families are expected to be available in January 2020.

The Portland Public Schools has been one of the leaders in the state in establishing and expanding pre-K opportunities. I am pleased that Gov. Janet Mills now has made expanding pre-K in Maine a priority, and look forward to support from the state as we continue to work toward the important goal of offering pre-K to all Portland students.

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