Nonprofit joins Maine effort to increase pre-K education

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With only about 40 percent of eligible Maine school children enrolled in a preschool program statewide, a national nonprofit is offering families an alternative way to get kids ready for kindergarten.

Waterford Upstart, which started in Utah 13 years ago, is making its online kindergarten preparatory program available to 200 Maine 4-year-olds free of charge for the first time this summer. The program offers students 15-minute online lessons five days a week plus access to a family coach, and will also provide Wi-Fi or computers for families who need them.

Kim Fischer, Waterford vice president of communications, said earlier this month the program is adaptive and focuses on literacy, letter recognition, and phonemic awareness. The average graduate of the Waterford Upstart program enters kindergarten reading at a first-grade level, she said.

Waterford Upstart provides 4-year-old children access to early education at no cost to participants. (Courtesy Waterford)

“It’s the idea of having that foundation of literacy,” Fischer said. “It leads to confidence when they walk into school. They realize they know what the teacher is talking about and that leads to confidence.”

Maine families with children going into kindergarten in 2022 who are interested in signing up for Waterford Upstart can do so at www.waterfordupstart.org

The Waterford organization, Fischer said, has been around for about 30 years. The Waterford Upstart program began as a home-based teaching aid for classroom teachers, she said, to reach rural children who didn’t have access to a center-based preschool.

Initially focused on low-income families and populations like refugees, Waterford Upstart is now available to all Utah households. Fischer said other states took notice, as did philanthropic organizations like TED Conferences. Waterford was chosen by TED as a 2019 Audacious Project, which is the funding initiative that allowed it to expand to Maine.

According to the Maine Department of Education, 80 percent of the state’s school districts offer at least one public preschool classroom. Despite the well-documented cognitive and social-emotional benefits preschool provides to students, the DOE website says “a variety of factors” contribute to whether or not Maine districts offer preschool and to what extent.

Last year, Gov. Janet Mills proposed dedicating $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for public pre-kindergarten infrastructure to increase the number of enrolled 4-year-olds. This April, President Joe Biden also announced his American Families Plan, part of which proposes providing universal preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide.

Portland School Board Chair Emily Figdor said in an interview earlier this month that one of the biggest challenges facing city schools is how to offer before- and after-school care. She has cited implementing universal pre-K with before- and after-care as one of the most crucial ways of increasing equity in the schools. 

The state has different licensing requirements for before- and after-school care and requires districts to update their licensing at each school individually, which Figdor described as “red tape” that inhibits rolling out the service. 

Providing before- and after-care, she said, is essential to making pre-K universal, especially for working families or those with more than one school-aged child. 

The Portland Public Schools will, however, be offering transportation for 4-year-olds to and from its preschool classes this year, which Figdor said is a big step. The School Department is also committed to offer before- and after-care for its preschool classes starting in the 2022-2023 school year, she said.

Other barriers to making the program universal include not having enough classroom space and the district wanting to also support existing community programs. Portland students attending preschool classes now, Figdor said, are those the district has deemed most in need. 

In early 2019, she added, the School Board expanded its pre-K program and stepped away from the approach of adding one class per year.

Providing universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds, Figdor said, is a major goal for her as she looks toward seeking a second term on the board. Eventually, she said, she would also like to see 3-year-olds offered pre-K because research shows two years of the program is ideal for children.

“We know that pre-K is really a game-changer for kids,” Figdor said. “There are few silver bullets in public policy, but pre-K is one of them.”

Presumpscot Elementary School in Portland, one of four city elementary schools OK’d for renovations by voters in 2017. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

School Board awards Presumpscot renovation job

Presumpscot Elementary School is a step closer to being renovated, nearly four years after voters approved a $64 million Buildings For Our Future school bond to renovate four Portland elementary schools.

The School Board on July 20 unanimously approved a bid from Great Falls Construction to renovate Presumpscot. The Great Falls bid was the lowest of three received for the project, but exceeded the School Department budget by $4.3 million, prompting the board to shift an equal amount from bond reserve funds to cover it. 

Besides Presumpscot, the bond approved in 2017 is paying for renovations at the Lyseth, Longfellow, and Reiche schools. Renovations by Hardypond Construction at Lyseth Elementary School are almost complete, and the board has approved construction bids for Longfellow and Reiche. Harriman Associates architectural and engineering firm is designing and leading all the projects.

The Reiche bid came in $4.8 million under budget, which gave the School Department more flexibility to address Presumpscot.

“We’ve reached a major milestone in getting all four schools in the process of renovation,” School Board Chair Emily Figdor said. “I think that’s extraordinary.”

— Elizabeth Clemente