BELFAST, Maine — Maine could be doing more to support early childhood education programs aimed at children from birth to age 2 from impoverished families, according to a recent University of New Hampshire study.
Maine has 837 Early Head Start (EHS) slots offered at 44 sites across Maine, largely concentrated in central and southern parts of the state near population centers. Each county has at least one EHS program.
But as many as 8,000 Maine children could be eligible for the program based on U.S. Census data, according to the study conducted by the Carsey School of Public Policy. It’s primarily geared toward families whose incomes fall below federal poverty guidelines — $28,290 per year for a family of four in 2017.
“Maine’s [Early Head Start] programming serves an important segment of the vulnerable population, including the state’s youngest children, all of whom are facing some kind of economic or social disadvantage,” researchers wrote in the report.
Early Head Start staff work with families expecting a child, providing education to parents on issues ranging from health to caregiving, and helping their child develop cognitive and physical skills. Staffers can continue working with the family until the child turns three and becomes eligible for other early education programs.
Families can either travel to EHS centers, have a staffer visit their home, or do a bit of both. About 47 percent of Maine families enrolled in the program sign up for home visits, which is better than the national average of 37 percent.
EHS is a federally funded program administered by the Office of Early Head Start, a division of the Administration for Children and Families under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
More than a third of Maine families who participate in the program drop out early, according to the study. The staff in Maine who meet with families are better educated than their peers in other parts of the country, according to the report. For example, 65 percent of staffers who visit homes have at least a four-year degree, compared to the national average of 54 percent.
“Given EHS’s already limited reach, that more than one in three Maine enrollees exit programing before aging out is particularly worrisome,” the report states.
National studies have shown that access to early childhood education, before age 5, boosts a child’s likelihood of success later on in school and reduces the likelihood that children will commit crimes later in life.
Several groups, including Educate Maine and the Maine Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing to increase the availability of early education programs in the state in recent years, and called for increased state and federal funding for such programs.
State supplemental funds pay for a small share of EHS slots — 60 of the 837 EHS slots for 2015-2016. The report suggests that the state Legislature might consider ways to bolster the program, such as providing additional funds for home visits.
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