After a whirlwind summer of renovations, equipment installation, and preparations, prekindergarten programs at schools across RSU 40 are providing full-time learning for nearly 100 young students from throughout the district.
At Miller School, Union Elementary School, and Warren Community School, prekindergarten has been upgraded from two to five days per week, enabling the schools to serve their youngest learners full-time. A pre-K program was also added at Prescott Memorial School in Washington.
These developments were funded by a pre-K expansion grant from the Maine Department of Education that the district applied for last year, said Miller School Assistant Principal Jamie White. After being awarded the grant during the 2022-2023 school year, RSU 40 facilities and early childhood education staff spent the summer undertaking necessary renovations, preparing their classrooms, and planning for the expanded program.
Miller School had previously hosted two classes of 16 students for two days a week. The program still hosts 32 students, but now does so full-time.
Miller School Principal Julia Levensaler said that expanding early childhood care services, like prekindergarten, is an important step towards improving the well-being of both students and young families.
“There’s a huge need for kids to be part of a place where there are other children, where they can learn how to be together and play together … and get services if they need it,” she said.
State agencies such as Child Development Services provide support to young people and families in Maine who may require early intervention or other developmental support.
But while many students stand to benefit from such services, identifying those in need can be challenging. Maine in particular is behind other New England states when it comes to identifying at-risk children and those in need, according to data presented at the early childhood convening hosted by the Midcoast Community Collaborative in Damariscotta on Nov. 2.
This is felt in the classroom, said Levensaler.
“We have kids who come to pre-K or kindergarten and obviously needed something, but didn’t get it – for a lot of different reasons,” she said.
Expanding prekindergarten boosts teachers’ contact with students like these who might benefit from early intervention and similar services. Sometimes, this can help “expedite the process” of coordinating support, Levensaler said.
Levensaler noted that there is an “immense need” for expanded early childhood care in Lincoln County. Speakers at the early childhood convening earlier this month similarly identified an early childhood care “desert” spanning the north Lincoln County and southern Knox County area, including the town of Waldoboro as an area of particular concern.
Even with the expansions to prekindergarten in the area, noted White, the 32 available spots at Miller’s prekindergarten program filled up quickly, leaving some children on a waitlist. Finding ways to expand early childhood programs further is an important next step, said Levensaler.
One of the obstacles to providing early childhood care in the region is a lack of space. This was addressed at the Miller School by converting an outbuilding at the school, which had previously housed RSU 40 administrative offices, into a dedicated prekindergarten space.
Facilities staff removed a fireplace from the building, added two bathrooms, and converted the offices into a classroom and play space, incorporating furnishings and designs chosen by pre-K teachers. The play space includes sand tables, a reading nook, and a dress-up corner.
Outside the building, new pre-K playground equipment was installed, including a climbing structure with a slide, swings, and two friendly spring animals – one, a purple dinosaur that the children named Leo Coconut, and another a yellow insect-like creature that they dubbed Bumblebum.
Work on the conversion began “the day that school ended” last year and continued throughout the summer in order to ready the space by the start of this year, Levensaler said, adding that RSU 40 Facilities Director Brian Race was “instrumental” in making the changes happen.
Finding ways to open up more spots will be an important step going forward, Levensaler said, but for now, the expansion to RSU 40 prekindergarten is a vital step toward making early childhood care more accessible locally.