Ed tech Lacey Guthrie works with students making polar bears on Tuesday at Vine Street School. Vine Street School has a successful full-day prekindergarten program. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Lynn Silk had never seen such rapid growth among prekindergarten students at Bangor’s Vine Street School before this school year, when the school expanded pre-K from a half- to a full-day program.

“Academically, it’s night and day,” said Silk, Vine Street’s principal. “Where we are at this point in the year, we are not usually there by the end of the year.”

Students are learning to read, write and communicate complex ideas more quickly. Silk said she has also seen the young students, generally 4 or 5, make significant progress in developing basic life skills, such as learning to share and being part of a community, at a time when kids can fall behind in those areas due to the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 40 percent of pre-K students in the full-day program have already met their end-of-year learning goals, months before the start of summer vacation. Their progress reflects the significant advantages research from across the country has shown for full-day pre-K participants.

A student looks at all of her classmates’ names that they made using marshmallows. Vine Street School has a successful full-day prekindergarten program. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

That is why Superintendent James Tager will ask the School Committee to expand full-day pre-K to two of the city’s other elementary schools, Downeast and Abraham Lincoln schools, in the school department’s budget for the 2022-23 school year.

Funding will come in the form of grants from $10 million in federal coronavirus relief funds that Gov. Janet Mills has set aside to expand public pre-K. Pre-K at two other Bangor elementary schools, Fourteenth Street and Fruit Street schools, will remain half-day programs with the goal of expanding them by 2030 under the school department’s strategic plan.

“We want to make sure that we don’t shock the budget too much,” said Ray Phinney, a school department spokesperson. “We understand that a lot of this has to come from taxpayers.”

Full-day offerings at two more schools would mark the continuation of a gradual expansion of full-day prekindergarten in the Bangor area, where half-day pre-K remains the norm with notable exceptions.

Hampden-based RSU 22 has two full-day programs that run Monday through Thursday. Brewer Community School has one, as do Helen S. Dunn Elementary in Greenbush and the Veazie Community School.

Viola Rand School in Bradley has a full-day program this year, though it has varied year to year based on enrollment. Indian Island School has a five-hour program that runs from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Vine Street’s pre-K program makes use of group and individualized learning that seeks to build early reading and writing skills while allowing kids time for creative play.

Clockwise from left: Vine Street School Principal Lynn Silk talks about their full-day prekindergarten program; Emily Robinson, prekindergarten teacher at Vine Street School, works on letters and spelling; prekindergarten students play together at the Arctic snow station in their classroom at Vine Street School; and a student works on making a polar bear in his prekindergarten class at Vine Street School. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

It is important to work on developmentally appropriate skills for 4- and 5-year-olds, pre-K teacher Emily Robinson said.

Earlier in the school year, much of the focus was on enhancing the motor skills necessary to write before students moved on to letters and letter sounds. Now, they are learning basic words and simple grammatical skills, like putting a period at the end of a sentence, she said. Some are already reading.

The all-day expansion allows Robinson to spend double the time working on all those skills with students, she said, as well as tending to the unique needs of the 19 students she and an ed tech oversee each day.

Pre-K, at the start of students’ academic lives, is about teaching them important life skills that will better prepare them for the future, including sharing, responsibility and being part of a classroom community, Robinson said.

Those community-oriented lessons are important for children who have been living through the pandemic, and especially for kids without siblings, Silk said.

“Some of them haven’t had any experiences outside the home,” Robinson said. “They’ve been in a pandemic for two years.”

Robinson, who has a background in special education, initially had to address behavioral challenges among students. Most were still getting used to a school environment, sharing and working with others, Silk said. She said students have made rapid gains since then.

A prekindergarten student shows his work to teacher Emily Robinson Tuesday at Vine Street School in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Some may worry that full-day pre-K overloads kids with academics at too young an age, Silk said, but learning through play is an integral part of the program.

Practically all of the academic lessons involve play. Students recently learned to write their names in marshmallows using glue, for example. In recent weeks, the focus has been on animals and the winter, which is why staff set up a “bear’s den” on Tuesday that students could go inside. Students were playing with fake snow at the arctic snow station.

Silk said she is passionate about what she and her staff are doing at Vine Street not just for the academic results, but for the population it is serving, including many students from economically disadvantaged families that likely can’t afford private pre-K.

“Having a full-day pre-K in a public setting makes it accessible to all,” Silk said.