Early Education Part One 

Recently released studies have shown that quality pre-kindergarten education may hold the key to a successful future. Currently, 60 percent of Maine school districts offer programs for 4-year-olds. But for the other 40 percent, the reason why they don’t is a familiar story — money.

A recently released study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation illustrates how crucial the first five years is in a person’s life. And yet it’s the area we find where Maine and many other parts of the nation are investing the least amount of resources.

Another report released by the non-profit anti-crime organization shows that kids who aren’t ready to go on day one of kindergarten have a far greater chance of dropping out of school, having trouble with the law, and struggling with addiction.

“Children from birth to three have the greatest volume of learning in their entire lives,” said Murielle DiBiase, a master teacher at Educare in Waterville. “The rate at which they can learn is the greatest in the first three years. So then the 3-5 it’s still a rapid rate of learning.”

Statistics show it’s predominantly kids from lower income homes who are more likely to fall behind. And when kids fall behind early on in their schooling, it can be impossible for them to catch up.

Thanks to $4-million in outside money, including $3 million from philanthropist Doris Buffett, AOS 92 Superintendent Eric Haley is fortunate to have Educare, the best pre-k program in the state in his backyard. It’s a place that levels the playing field for kids from low income families, allowing every child, regardless of their circumstances, an opportunity to learn.

“Finances drive everything,” Haley said. “I’m sure of that 40% of those superintendents, they’d love to have a pre-K, but they don’t have the financial resources to do it. It’s just like I’d like to be driving around in a Mercedes or something like that. I don’t have the financial resources to do it. I don’t do it.”

At Educare, they’re in the business of school readiness. They serve more than 200 kids from birth to age 5 with plenty more on a waiting list to get in. They operate under a research based and data driven model, so they’re constantly evolving. They stress parental involvement from the start as paramount to a child’s success according to Kristen Holzinger, Family Services Manager at Educare.

“We help them to start thinking about: ‘What do I want for my child?’ ‘Do I want my child to get a college education?’ ‘What would that look like?’ ‘Do I need to start saving money now?’”

Pre-K through the third grade is where students typically learn to read. It’s in the third grade where they start to read to learn.

“So if you don’t have reading skills by the end of your third grade year, if you can’t read, and I mean read up to grade level, there is a strong disposition that you’re going to fall further and further behind,” Haley said.

Data shows that not acquiring those reading skills early on directly correlates to lack of success later on and increases the chances of students dropping out. Everything they do here is to make sure each child, regardless of their background, is ready on day one when they walk into kindergarten.

“I bet if you asked any kindergarten teacher what skill sets would they like to see a child come into public school with, they’re not going to necessarily talk about knowing your A,B,C’s. It’s going to be about knowing self-control, getting along with others being able to sit and listen and attention span,” said Kathy Colfer, Educare Director of Child and Family Services.

The Educare model is proving to be a success. The facility has been open for more than four years and they’re now able to track the progress of their first group of Pre-K students who are now at the neighboring George Mitchell Elementary School. The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Parental involvement is up to a staggering 95 percent and assessment test scores are also on the rise.

“Our children who come from low income households are almost on par with the well-resourced families, which is huge, because that’s what we’re about is closing that achievement gap,” Colfer said.