Bath-area pre-kindergarten program seeks funds for expansion

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BATH — The pre-kindergarten program in Regional School Unit 1 plans to add 10 children if it can match a $15,000 donation by Aug. 1.

The program – Children Having Opportunities In Collaborative Early Settings, alsp known as CHOICES – serves 71 children. RSU 1 funds tuition for those students, placed through a lottery system for the upcoming school year.

Coordinator Rosalie Perkins is among those hoping that all 4-year-olds in the five RSU 1 communities – approximately 150 children – will someday be able to participate in the program.

“Research has shown, over and over again, how valuable pre-K is to the overall academic achievement of children,” Perkins said last week. “… We are finding now that employers and companies who want to hire good workers are realizing how important it is to invest in pre-K, because it means long-term, the population becomes more skilled, having started out with a very strong base.”

Although it had proposed reducing the number of pre-K slots it offers to 58, the RSU 1 Board of Directors opted last month to added $58,000 to its fiscal 2013 budget to restore those slots, after hearing strong community support for the program and concern over the cuts.

“It was just a blessing,” Perkins said of the funds being reinstated.

The funds were part of the $26 million spending plan approved this month by voters.

The Boston-based Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust has offered CHOICES a $25,000 challenge grant, stipulating that the program must match that funding. The Davenport Trust in Bath has awarded CHOICES $10,000 toward the match – which is also being used to add three more slots next year, bringing the offering to 74.

The program must secure a commitment of $15,000 by Aug. 1 in order to receive the trust’s funding; doing so will allow CHOICES to expand to 84 children.

Besides offering CHOICES at the Dike-Newell School in Bath, RSU 1 partners with community programs – such the Bath Area Family YMCA, Family Focus and the Children’s Schoohouse – to offer the initiative at other sites. It will also be offered this next school year at Woolwich Central School, and if CHOICES receives the grant funding, it may also be able to partner once again with Head Start in Bath.

CHOICES is unique, Perkins said, because “we do collaborate with the community to provide tuition for the children to go to their programs. And this helps everyone, in that it also helps … the infrastructure of the child-care community.”

The initiative has had a goal of offering pre-K across all of RSU 1 by the fall of 2013, but the economic downturn and state funding cuts have created setbacks.

“We kind of went backwards for several years,” Perkins said. “We feel like we’re back on track now to move forward.”

Pre-K for all the district’s 4-year-olds “has been my personal goal all along,” she said, “but it is definitely the RSU 1 intention that we will develop universal pre-K.”

Those interested in helping CHOICES reach its goal can contact Perkins at the Dike-Newell School at 443-8285 or rperkins@rsu1.org. Donations can also be mailed to Perkins at Dike-Newell, 3 Wright Drive, Bath, ME 04530.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.