By Amy Harris

As the nation works to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the already significant academic opportunity gap between the privileged and the non-privileged to widen dramatically, public pre-kindergarten is in the spotlight, both nationally and locally here in Maine. Some educational experts estimate that as many as 3 million of the most educationally marginalized students in the U.S. did not return to school after March 2020. This group includes English-language learning students, students with learning disabilities, and students eligible for the U.S. Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program. Experts predict that the school attendance crisis created by COVID-19 will have lifelong consequences for all children, and especially those from disadvantaged groups.

As part of the American Families Plan announced in April 2021, President Joe Biden proposed spending $200 billion for free universal pre-school or two years of early childhood education for those between ages 3 and 5. In addition, Governor Janet Mills earmarked $10 million of federal relief funds for expanding Maine’s public pre-kindergarten, or pre-K, options. Many politicians and parents support a public pre-K option as a wise investment in the educational future of all Maine’s children. The benefits are believed to be exponentially greater for children from non-English speaking families.

What is pre-K and where is it available in Maine?
Pre-K is the term for public education provided to preschool children who turn four years old by October 15. Pre-K takes place in a group setting and helps prepare children for formal kindergarten at age 5.

In Maine, 80% of all school districts offer at least 10 hours per week of free pre-K education. If pre-K were available for free to all children in Maine, this would be called universal pre-K. Universal pre-K is the ultimate goal of many educators and politicians. The state uses the terms public-preschool and pre-K interchangeably. The Maine Department of Education reports that about 40% of all eligible children in Maine are enrolled in public pre-K.

Lewiston Pre-K

In some school districts, the state contracts with other childcare providers to offer free pre-K. This includes Head Start, a federally funded program that offers early childhood education to families with incomes below federal poverty measures. Public preschools are approved and monitored by the Maine Department of Education and funded through its Essential Programs & Services (EPS) formula, and/or through local school budgets. Approximately 35% of Maine’s public preschools are in partnership with a Head Start agency, local child care, or private preschool program.

Many families need more hours of childcare than public pre-K offers, so they must pay for private care. As Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children (MaineAEYC), calls Maine’s early childhood education network a “mixed delivery system.” Childcare options include “the infant, toddler, preschooler world of the informal network of caregivers, plus all the licensed child care providers, and the formal school districts in the state,” Williams said.

What do children learn in pre-K?
Pre-K falls under the umbrella of early childhood education, the period of learning from birth through age 8. The main goal of pre-K is to help children learn to learn, something officially called “school readiness.”

Young children learn through play, so pre-K classrooms tend to be play-based rather than overtly academic. The curriculum focuses on social-emotional learning, language development, motor skills development, and the building blocks for literacy and math.

Suzanne Chevalier, the director of Portland Public Schools (PPS) PreK programming, said, “All 4-year-olds need help with figuring out how they are a part of a large community. How do I self-regulate? How do I share? How do I take turns? This is all part of the pre-K curriculum for everyone, regardless of what language they speak or what country their family comes from.”

Bridging the educational achievement gap
Advocates for universal pre-K explain that students enter kindergarten at different social and academic development levels, which creates an educational achievement gap right from the beginning. Children from families with higher income and educational levels start life with an advantage; however, experts say high-quality early childhood education can help close this gap. In addition, children from non-English speaking immigrant families must overcome an achievement gap caused by language, and thus they gain from pre-K education. As of 2019, about one in four children in the United States were foreign-born or lived with at least one foreign-born parent.

Pre-K is a smart investment in children’s futures
Closing the educational achievement gap becomes more complex and costly as children advance through elementary, middle, and high school. Economists calculate that for every $1 invested in preschool, more than $10 is returned in cost savings.
Researchers studying 4,000 4-year-olds who participated in Boston’s lottery system for free pre-K 1997-2003 found that the children who attended preschool were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, and were less likely to skip class, get suspended, or go to a juvenile detention facility. Similar research following children from preschool through to their mid-50s reported in 2019 that children who attended preschool were less likely to be arrested, go on welfare, or unemployed; and more likely to earn higher salaries over their lifetime and enjoy greater professional success.

Some benefits of pre-K for children from immigrant families
Experts agree that the years from birth to age 5 are critical for building the foundational knowledge and language skills necessary for future success in life and school. Further, research shows that dual-language learning children who receive early childhood education continuously beginning at age 2 enter kindergarten at more advanced levels of literacy and fluency. As a result, most educators advocate for universal pre-K and consider it a key to increasing positive educational outcomes in children born into immigrant families in the U.S.

Access to language facilitators
The Portland Public Schools employ certified Pre-K Dual Language English Language teachers to support Pre-K students who are learning English, and Lewiston has hired specially trained language facilitators in their pre-K classrooms to help children of immigrant families. This help is intended both to help children learn English and to help them maintain their first languages. Betsy Norcross Plourde is executive director of Promise Early Education Center, contracted provider for Androscoggin County’s Head Start pre-K programs. She said, “For many of our families, particularly those who speak Somali and Swahili, some of the kids that we see now have been born here and have strong English skills … however, we see that while they may have good receptive language in their parent’s native language, they can’t always communicate with their parents in the same way. Our language facilitators can help with that.”

Earlier identification of any social-emotional or educational needs.
Children who receive special services and intervention at a young age tend to do better than those who receive help later on, so sending children to pre-K allows educators to assess children early, when intervention is most effective. Micky Bondo, member of the Portland School Board and co-founder of In Her Presence, said, “[In pre-K] we can identify kids who need special services early and see what their needs are… conduct assessments during the years kids are learning how to speak…as they are learning to think and learn. Those who aren’t assessed until 5 or 6 in kindergarten don’t get access to those early support services.”

Why is it hard for New Mainers to access public pre-K?
The Migration Policy Institute reports that fewer children from foreign-born than from American-born families participate in early childhood care. The most commonly reported obstacles immigrant families face in enrolling their children are difficulty registering due to a language barrier, lack of transportation, lack of wrap-around care hours, and cost. “It’s very, very difficult for immigrants. Mostly, you don’t know the system, and you don’t know when or where to go and who to ask. And then you have to go to work, too,” said Christine Biyoga, early childhood educator and mother.

Because of a lack of classroom space or a shortage of teachers, many school districts only offer pre-K for two-and-a-half hours, four days a week, which does not work well for working families. As a result, some immigrant families keep their younger children at home with them. This is especially true in larger, multigenerational families and in families with parents working non-traditional schedules such as overnight shifts. Many early childhood education advocates, educators, and parents themselves worry about the lifetime impact of this missed opportunity.

“Every time I find a parent who has young children at home, 2 or 3 years old, it hurts my heart because I know how much this kid is missing,” said Biyoga. “I notice when the kids are 2 and 3, they are already behind in speaking, knowing how to behave around other kids…they’re just behind on all levels: emotional, intellectual, and everything.”

Universal pre-K across Maine gaining ground
Expanding the availability of pre-K options for all Maine children makes sense from an economic and social justice perspective. In addition to the lifelong positive impact on childhood growth and learning that pre-K can have for children from immigrant families, these programs also would help ensure a brighter future for the entire family.
A 2013 article by researchers at George Mason University reported that “low-income Latina and African immigrant mothers use their children’s early childhood education programs to build human, social, and navigational capital.”

Tara Williams of MaineAEYC emphasized the importance of collaboration in a mixed delivery system in order to find a solution that works for children from immigrant families. Some school districts in Maine have begun the work of removing barriers. For example, Lewiston and Portland school districts have both improved language accessibility in the registration process, expanded numbers of full-day pre-K classrooms, and now offer more transportation options. Advocates suggest that parents, families, and community members should call for more of the COVID-19 relief funds to be spent on public pre-K, calling it a sound investment for Maine’s future.

How to support the future of pre-K for Maine
• Talk to other parents about the benefits of early childhood education. Explain what kids learn and how it helps them succeed.
• Learn about the options for public pre-K.
• Go to school board meetings. Encourage school board representatives to work toward making pre-K universally accessible.
• Become a teacher. Funding and training are available to help start a childcare facility. Some current opportunities are Maine Roads to Quality, Coastal Enterprises Inc.’s Childcare Business Development Lab, and Gov. Janet Mills’ Childcare for Maine Plan which awards one-time $2,000 stipends for newly licensed child care providers.