PITTSFIELD, Maine — Dwindling financial resources are partly to blame for the dissolution of a long-standing partnership in the delivery of pre-kindergarten programming for area students.
The Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which has helped SAD 53 for more than 15 years by funding part of the district’s pre-kindergarten classes, announced recently that it would pull out of the program effective in the next school year. District Superintendent Michael Gallagher said Friday that the change means there will be three pre-kindergarten classes at Manson Park School in Pittsfield next year, as opposed to four that have been offered in recent years.
“We’ve had a long-standing and positive relationship with KVCAP and the Head Start program and we regret that it’s not going to continue,” said Gallagher. KVCAP’s pullout means that the district’s pre-kindergarten will have room for up to 48 students next year as opposed to 64 in the current year — though Gallagher said only 59 students are enrolled. Asked whether the change means pupils will be turned away, Gallagher said it’s possible but that it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened in recent years.
“We’re actually encouraging parents to sign up their children,” said Gallagher. “We’re still looking for more students.” As of Friday, Gallagher said about 35 students had registered for next year’s pre-kindergarten program, which begins in the fall. Registrations will be accepted through the summer, he said.
Kathy Colfer, director of child and family services for KVCAP, said her organization has endured several years of flat funding or revenue cuts from state and federal sources, which she said comprise some 90 percent of the organization’s budget. However, funding is only part of the reason for pulling out of SAD 53, she said, which in a way is good news for Greater Pittsfield. KVCAP assesses where to spend its resources based on socioeconomic and health care thresholds — areas where she said the Pittsfield area has improved over the years.
“When we evaluated our communities, the Pittsfield area had the lowest need,” she said. “We spent years building these relationships and partnerships and we don’t take lightly ceasing partnering with anyone. It’s agonizing, actually.”
The percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch is a key measure used by KVCAP. In the Pittsfield area that number slowly has sunk below the milestone of 50 percent in recent years. At the George J. Mitchell School in Waterville, for example, where KVCAP operates a pre-kindergarten program at the new Educare Center, 81 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-cost meals. The numbers are almost as high in the Skowhegan area, said Colfer.
Gallagher said there are higher percentages of students qualifying for free and reduced-cost meals in the higher grades, namely 56 percent at Vickery School and 58 percent at Warsaw Middle School. Those schools, along with Manson Park School, serve students from Pittsfield, Burnham and Detroit.
Gallagher said SAD 53’s pre-kindergarten program was among the first in the state when it started in the early 1990s and that it continues to have strong support among school officials and the community. Gallagher said the pullout of KVCAP would generate some additional expenses for the district to replace equipment but that the cost would be minimal.
Colfer said the district’s commitment to continuing the program was another factor.
“There’s a terrific program in place with terrific people running it,” she said. “It made the decision a little easier to make knowing that those children from those communities would still have a high-quality preschool.”
Editor’s Note: BDN reporter Christopher Cousins’ wife has worked in the Manson Park pre-kindergarten program in the past and is employed by Kennebec Valley Community Action Program in Skowhegan. She was not affected by KVCAP’s decision to pull out of Manson Park’s pre-kindergarten program.