AUGUSTA – Listening to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, Janine Blatt was thrilled to hear him propose universal preschool.
“It's exciting to hear that on the national agenda,” Blatt said Wednesday. “It's not since 1971 this has been elevated to the top of the federal policy agenda.”
Maine is ahead of much of the nation in supporting public prekindergarten, but it's far from universal.
Nearly half of Maine public elementary schools offer quality preschool programs, but many of those programs can't take all students, said Blatt, the early childhood consultant in the Maine Department of Education.
In the State of the Union address, Obama proposed the federal government work with states “to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” The sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does, Obama said, but nationally fewer than 3 in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a quality program.
Studies show students who attend quality preschools are more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate from high school and hold a job.
“Let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance,” Obama said.
Maine has had public prekindergarten in the school funding formula since 1983. School districts that offer programs to 4-year-olds may count those students as full-time. The state reimburses districts for the preschoolers in the state funding formula.
In Maine public preschool is voluntary. Districts don't have to offer it, parents don't have to send their children. It's becoming more common.
In 2004, 91 elementary schools offered prekindergarten. Last year, that number jumped to 197 out of some 400 public schools, close to 50 percent, Blatt said.
That equates to about 4,800 4-year olds attending public schools, about a third of Maine's 4-year old population, Blatt said. More attend Head Start or private preschools while some go without.
Help from the federal government would be welcome, Blatt said. “We need to see the details. This needs to go through Congress, but Maine has the foundation to build on.”
Locally, educators support Obama's call for quality, public preschool. “So many of our students are starting kindergarten too far behind without it,” Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said. Prekindergarten “is one way to help level the playing field.”
Some incoming preschoolers are more in need than prekindergarten students just a few years ago, Webster said. The explosion of technology means fewer youngsters are being exposed to play groups.
“More students are coming to school for the first time with no development of social skills,” he said.
Lewiston public schools and Head Start serve about two-thirds of Lewiston's 4-year-old population, Webster said. Lewiston has added a classroom or more a year, another will likely be added this fall.
The goal is to eliminate any waiting lists next year or the year after, Webster said. “I'm pleased we've done that. It's not cheap. We also offer busing for 4-year-olds.”
Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said she too is pleased to hear preschool become a national priority.
“Universal pre-K is an excellent idea. It definitely makes a difference," Grondin said. "It gives students a head start around learning routines of school,” including social, emotional and academic.
Since Auburn has partnered with Head Start and introduced preschool in the last several years, more than half of the city's 4-year-old population is enrolled, but many are on waiting lists.
“We do our best,” Grondin said.
Out of a possible 250 4-year-olds, 150 attend Auburn public preschools, Grondin said.
At the Mt. Blue Regional School District in the Farmington area, preschool is also available to many, but not all, Superintendent Michael Cormier said.
His district has 114 slots a year for 170 to 180 4-year olds.
“We usually fill all the slots with a few on waiting lists,” Cormier said.