Challenges loom as Portland explores universal pre-K

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PORTLAND — There’s wide agreement among educators, researchers and even some politicians that universal pre-kindergarten provides high value in terms of early learning opportunities and long-term academic and social success.

But there are a variety of challenges, including the overall cost and how best to provide such programming, especially in a time when most parents work full time.

Those are just some of the issues the Portland Public Schools is grappling with as it works to create a strategic plan for providing universal pre-K to students in the city, a goal set not only by the School Board, but also by Mayor Ethan Strimling in his most recent State of the City address.

In that speech, on Jan. 31, Strimling asked the City Council to support a universal pre-K program in the public schools capable of serving about 500 of the city’s 4-year-olds. He also suggested a referendum vote on the measure, which he anticipated would cost roughly $2 million, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Working in collaboration with Starting Strong, a community-supported organization with a mission of ensuring kids are school-ready, the School Department hopes to have an action plan in place for implementing universal pre-K by this coming fall.

Over the next six months, Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning said, the district would collaborate with the School Readiness Group to develop a road map for universal pre-K that would “(have us) well positioned to move forward with some clear focus and direction.”

During its meeting on Feb. 6, the School Board received an update on the actions district staff have taken since late fall to pursue the goal of universal pre-K.

That update included a comprehensive report by the Data Innovation Project, which outlined the current situation in terms of pre-schooling in Portland, what some of the barriers and challenges are, and a series of recommendations, including hiring a pre-K coordinator.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said the report was designed to help the School Department “more fully understand the landscape and the needs” in terms of providing universal pre-K in the city. And Nalli said the report was a way “to clarify our path forward.”

Both she and Botana also made it clear that universal pre-K, even if ultimately offered by the public schools, would have to include a public-private partnership.

To best serve the community, Nalli said, “we need to think creatively about providing day-long (options) and shared resources.” Universal pre-K, she added, requires a “community-wide collaboration.”

The costs for universal pre-K include not only providing space, but teachers, curriculum development, and transporation, Nalli said, which can be “a real barrier” to families trying to get their children to and from a preschool program.

In answer to a question from board member Marnie Morrione about the pace of implementing universal pre-K, Botana said the planning must be done in a way that “creates the quality web of services families need” and ensures the School Department “does this in a way that’s comprehensive and really gets to the needs that have been identified.”

Nalli agreed and said, “We have to rally our resources in a collective way and think carefully and deeply about what will make it work.”

The report from the Data Innovation Project shows that there are 3,500 children under 5 living in Portland and that 73 percent of parents of young children are working, which “speaks to the need” for a universal pre-K program, Nalli said.

The report also showed about 75 percent of kindergartners entering the school system had some type of preschool experience. But the problem, according to Nalli, is that the quality and type of that experience varies widely.

In addition, the report showed of those students with no preschool experience, 32 percent were from low-income families and 31 percent were from English language-learning families.

The Portland Schools provides a public preschool program to 121 students chosen by lottery. The goal of this program is to reach low-income families and under-served populations first, according to the report.

The pre-K program operates out of eight classrooms at seven different sites: East End, Hall, Presumpscot and Riverton elementary schools, Catherine Morrill Day Nursery, the Youth and Family Outreach program, and the Head Start program offered through The Opportunity Alliance.

And while the pre-K program has had some initial success, Botana said there is also a lot of turnover.

The report indicated that’s because families can’t always get their children to and from the program easily, they struggle with a lot of different financial and housing issues and there are often siblings, who also require care and transportation.

The biggest question in creating a universal pre-K plan, Nalli said, is: “How do we best meet the needs of families?”

But even with the obstacles, the report by the Data Innovation Project argues, “quality preschool education programs (are important because they) can meaningfully enrich early learning and development for children, which in turn improves their school success and social behavior long term.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

A class of preschoolers being taught by students in the early childhood education program at Portland Arts and Technology High School. The Portland School Department is working on a strategic plan for implementing universal pre-K.