AUGUSTA, Maine — Enrollment in pre-kindergarten programs in Maine increased for the seventh year in a row in the 2013-14 school year, according to data from Maine’s Department of Education.
In the 2012-13 school year, 4,887 students were enrolled in public pre-kindergarten programs, which jumped this year to 5,004 students,
Maine appears to be bucking a recent national trend, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Nationally, enrollment in pre-kindergarten decreased by over 9,000 children in the 2012-13 school year, the first time it had done so, the report said.
Sue Reed, an early childhood education consultant at the Maine Department of Education, said the number of pre-kindergarten programs has increased in Maine, reflecting a growing understanding of the benefits of such programs.
“I would say that there is a much greater awareness of the impact that pre-K can have on later learning,” she said.
That has been in part because of a concerted effort by pre-kindergarten advocacy groups to educate the public, according to Leslie Forstadt, a child and family development specialist at the University of Maine’s cooperative extension
“There certainly has been a multi-year, public education effort,” she said.
The increase in the number of public preschools offered by school districts in Maine also is a result of a change in how the programs are funded, according to UMaine economics professor Philip Trostel. The change went into effect in the 2006-07 school year and increased the amount of money that districts could receive from the state for each 4-year-old taught.
School districts also took advantage of money that became available as a result of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known as the stimulus package, to start pre-kindergarten programs, Department of Education officials said.
In 2013, 34 percent of Maine’s 4-year-olds, or 4,887 students, were enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, which was up from just 10 percent in 2002. Four new pre-kindergartens opened this year, and the Department of Education is in conversations with 10 other potential programs, department officials said.
School districts in Maine are not required to offer pre-kindergarten, although 63 percent of Maine’s schools that offer kindergarten also offered preschool last year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research report.
Jean Bridges, department director of child development at Penquis, said there is a whole host of benefits that children accrue when they attend a high quality pre-kindergarten.
She said good programs help students develop strategies for “learning and success in a group setting.”
Research shows that a high quality pre-kindergarten can reduce a child’s chances of being held back in school, needing special education services and being incarcerated, Bridges said.
That means taxpayers also benefit when children attend high quality pre-kindergarten programs, according to Trostel.
Pre-kindergarten allows parents to work and can set children on a path to a higher paying career, which equates to more people paying taxes and less dependence on government services, he said.
In Maine, enrollment in pre-kindergarten is likely to continue to increase, especially when a law passed this year kicks into effect. The law, LD 1530, will make it easier for school districts to get startup funding from the state to establish a program. Districts have had to wait up to two years after a program has begun before reimbursement from the state, according to Reed.
Early childhood education professionals are careful to point out that not just any programs, but high quality programs yield results.
Maine meets six of the 10 “quality standards” on a checklist created by the National Institute for Early Education Research, the group that authored the report. Maine meets the standards that require pre-kindergarten teachers to have bachelor’s degrees with a specialization in early childhood education, and Maine programs have comprehensive learning standards, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Maine’s public pre-kindergarten programs do not meet the National Institute for Early Education Research’s benchmarks for class size, staff-child ratio, meals offered or a benchmark that says site visits must be used to ensure quality.
The Department of Education is in the process of updating a set of recommended standards for pre-kindergarten programs, said Jaci Holmes, the department’s federal state legislative liaison. Those standards highlight best practices for class size, staff-child ratio, curriculum and physical environment at public preschools.
Eventually those recommended standards will become regulations that all programs will have to demonstrate compliance with, Holmes said.