WATERVILLE, Maine — Waterville has become only the 12th community in the nation to host an education center whose pupils start learning at birth.
Spacious rooms with everything designed for little hands and bodies, hallways that resemble a forest glen and a fenced-in playground that brings to mind an ornate public garden are just a few of the details that grace Educare Central Maine, which opened last month for children up to kindergarten age.
It took some of the country’s most recognizable charity foundations — with names such as Buffett, Alfond, Kaiser, Kellogg and Gates — to make the center a reality. With a level of fanfare usually reserved for the opening of a new museum or symphony hall, the ribbons were cut and platitudes delivered Monday, all with the same simple idea at the core: Education starts at birth.
“It’s just beyond my dreams,” said Joan Alfond of the Maine-based William and Joan Alfond Foundation, which has committed to donating up to $2 million to the effort. “But this center opening is just the beginning. We’re working to change the culture and highlight the importance of recognizing that quality education begins at birth.”
Educare Central Maine, located next to the George J. Mitchell Elementary School in Waterville, is only the 12th of its kind in the country. The focus of the center, which serves about 200 children, is ensuring that those children enter kindergarten as well prepared as possible for their educational careers.
Backed by volumes of studies which suggest that the most important learning happens before a child’s third birthday, supporters of the center believe that even such an expensive investment up front — the project has cost some $11 million, including funds for an ongoing endowment — will pay dividends tenfold or a hundredfold in the future.
Eric Haley, Waterville’s superintendent of schools, said the need for such a center was crucial, evidenced by the fact that some 40 percent of incoming kindergartners in Waterville know fewer than six letters of the alphabet. Sadly, said Haley, Waterville’s situation in that regard is not unique. Waterville, which applied to be the site of the center three years ago, was chosen over similar proposals from Bangor, Lewiston and Portland.
During a nearly two-hour ceremony Monday, speaker after speaker said they hoped this Educare center isn’t the last one for Maine. Dan Pedersen of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund echoed that desire.
“The most important wall we’re tearing down today is the one between the building behind us and the first wall of the next Educare center,” he said. “It’s a building dedicated to the powerful idea that children are designed for learning from birth.”
The project’s inception was a matter of some key coincidences. In 2007, after a summit on early childhood spearheaded by Gov. John Baldacci and his wife, Karen, multimillionaire philanthropist Doris Buffett, who lives part time in Maine, committed to giving the project $3 million. The William and Joan Alfond Foundation agreed to give another $2 million and the Maine Legislature kicked in another $2 million.
In a budget climate that has caused far more cuts than investments, support for the state’s $2 million contribution nearly evaporated as legislators considered the budget in 2008. That money was added back into the budget after an impassioned plea from Karen Baldacci.
“It was the only time I have ever testified in front of a legislative committee,” Maine’s first lady said on Monday. “We desperately needed that public money to leverage a lot of private money.”
Numerous people said Karen Baldacci’s influence and hard work were critical to the center’s success. Among them was Doris Buffett, who helped cut the ribbon on the Karen M. Baldacci Children’s Garden on the Educare site Monday.
“She deserves it,” said Buffett, whose philanthropic endeavors are the stuff of legend. “She spearheaded this thing like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
Karen Baldacci said that even though the center is in operation, the fundraising effort still has $500,000 to go in order to leverage the Alfond Foundation’s $2 million matching pledge.
“It truly does take a village, and this is a wonderful village we’re in today,” she said.
George Kaiser of the Kaiser Family Foundation told the assembled guests Monday that he believes a strong education in the early years is “the most effective way to stop the cycle of poverty in a family.”
“It works, it pays and it’s the right thing to do,” said Kaiser.
Amid all the hubbub and VIP tours, members of the center’s teaching staff were stationed in their classrooms. There were no children there Monday because it was a day for training and organizing teaching materials — even in the rooms designed for infants.
“It’s pretty amazing how much is done with young children here,” said Sue Giguere of Benton, who has been teaching for 37 years, as she tidied up her teaching space. “We’re not just babysitters. We’re teaching them, but sometimes they get so excited, they’re teaching themselves. It’s amazing.”