The uncertain future of RSU 12’s pre-kindergarten program came to an end with the passage of a federal spending bill that restored previously eliminated funds for a five-year grant RSU 12 won in 2014.
With grant funding now certain, pre-K remains a top priority for RSU 12, with plans to open an additional classroom in the district in 2016-2017.
“When you get a grant, you never know what you’re jumping into,” Superintendent Howard Tuttle said to the RSU 12 Board of Directors on March 10. In the case of the federal Preschool Development Grant, “we got way more than expected,” he said. “We’re doing something really innovative.”
RSU 12 launched four pre-K classrooms in collaboration with Head Start in 2015-2016
as a result of the grant: two in Chelsea, one in Somerville, and one in Whitefield. The grant was to serve as a launching pad for a universal pre-K program accessible to all seven towns of the district, which includes Westport Island, Whitefield, Alna, Somerville, Chelsea, Palermo, and Windsor.
The future of RSU 12’s pre-K program was cast into doubt with funding for the grant eliminated from the preliminary federal budget for fiscal year 2016-2017. Through the intensive lobbying activity of grass-roots organizations and local, state, and federal leaders, funding for the full five-year grant was restored in the omnibus spending bill Congress passed in December 2015, Maine Children’s Alliance Senior Policy Analyst Rita Furlow said.
“It was a huge relief when the funding was restored,” Whitefield Elementary School Principal Joshua McNaughton said. “There was a lot of uncertainty. We were wondering what kind of a program we would be able to provide, but we’ll be here and fully functional next year.”
With doubts laid to rest about future funding, RSU 12 is moving forward with pre-K expansion. The pre-K program is listed as one of the district’s top priorities in the 2016-2017 budget, with plans to open an additional classroom in Windsor in the upcoming school year.
Pre-K teaching coach Kirsten Perry and Southern Kennebec Child Development Corp. Program Manager Penny Poolman gave an overview of the program to the RSU 12 Board of Directors on March 10. The pre-K program includes a full academic day, and transportation is provided for students.
Due to the collaboration with Head Start, the program focuses on providing comprehensive services not just to pre-K students but also to their families, which is not common, Poolman said. Through RSU 12’s pre-K program, Head Start case managers work with families to connect them to community resources.
Medical and dental care, fuel assistance, parenting classes, adult education programs, nutrition resources, and substance abuse counseling are just a few of the resources families have access to through the program, Poolman said.
The feedback from parents has been phenomenal, McNaughton said. The benefit of having students and parents involved in the school one year earlier is “a jump-start across the board,” McNaughton said.
Whitefield Elementary School pre-K teacher Teresa Blachet has taught in several Head Start and preschool programs. The RSU 12-Head Start collaboration is unique among her experiences, she said. Students are able to utilize the resources of the school, such as the gym and library, and become familiar with the school’s routines and teachers, she said, and the curriculum taught in the classroom is academically rich.
“They’re learning so much in here,” Blachet said. “Preschoolers are capable of learning a lot. The structure here really helps bring that out.”
Blachet loves the ratio of students to teachers in the pre-K class. Whitefield Elementary School’s pre-K classroom has two teachers and an education technician. The teachers are employees of Head Start and the education technician is an RSU 12 employee.
Whitefield pre-K teacher Jen Chapman was initially apprehensive about a full-day preschool program, but was quickly won over, she said. With nap time, the students are more than capable of spending the full day in school, she said.
“This has been great for the students, socially, emotionally, physically, and academically,” Chapman said.
The transportation provided to students is a huge part of the program’s success, McNaughton, Chapman, and Blachet said.
“Transportation has held a lot of programs back in the past,” McNaughton said.
Currently there are no pre-K students from Alna or Westport Island that participate in the program, Tuttle said. While the Whitefield pre-K classroom is accessible to Alna and available to Westport Island, RSU 12 is still working to determine the best way to serve pre-K students in the southern portion of the district, he said.
Whitefield Elementary School’s pre-K class is going to be the first to transition to kindergarten at the school, McNaughton said. “Through this process, we have a better grasp on where students are academically than we ever have in the past,” he said. “We’re going to be better prepared to meet their needs in kindergarten.”
RSU 12 is currently enrolling pre-K students for the 2016-2017 school year. For more information, call the central office at 549-3261.