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Brunswick weighs public pre-school program

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Brunswick weighs public pre-school program

BRUNSWICK — Since becoming the superintendent of schools in 2008, Paul Perzanoski has been an advocate for creation of a public pre-school program.

“They have shown over time that they help prepare kids for success in school," he said. "You get a lot of results for the money that you spent."

Perzanoski isn't alone in his enthusiasm for public pre-school – 178 towns and school districts around the state have already approved the idea. He said he doesn't want Brunswick to fall behind, and this year he may get his wish.

In the next few weeks, the School Board will decide whether to create a pre-school program to begin in this fall. 

A lot is undecided, including the scope, size and total cost of the program. But a survey by the School Department's pre-kindergarten committee last fall suggests there is significant community interest in such a program. A large majority of the survey's 109 respondents, 81.7 percent, said they believed that offering public pre-school is "somewhat" or "very" important.

Several anonymous survey respondents said public pre-school is crucial to eliminating achievement gaps between students of different socio-economic classes.

"Offering broad public access to early education for all children irrespective of their family income is a wise investment," one person wrote.

The cost of private pre-school was another major factor for many supporters of the program.

"It is so expensive to send two children to pre-school at the same time. I would be so excited to have them be able to go to pre-K for free, and I know a lot of their friends parents would love to have this option as well," another respondent wrote.

But others cited cost a reason not to create a public pre-school program.

"There are enough challenges in the existing schools with the existing students. We should NOT be taking on something else," wrote one respondent.

Paul Austin, director of student services, acknowledged that the up-front cost, more than $265,000 for a program that would be available to all 4-year-olds in Brunswick, could be hard to stomach, especially when the School Board is already facing a $3.84 million deficit.

But he said he strongly believes that the program would be an investment, and will save taxpayers millions of dollars in spending for criminal justice, special education, substance abuse treatment and other costs that could be avoided if more children had access to pre-school.

The pre-school program will also pay for itself in two to three years, thanks to a per-pupil tuition reimbursement from the state.

According to Jim Oikle, business manager at the Brunswick School Department, the Department of Education would reimburse Brunswick's pre-schoolers at the same rate as they would elementary school students, approximately $3,083 per student. The rate of reimbursement is intended for a six-hour school day, but the pre-school program will only last 2 1/2 hours. That means that Brunswick could educate two children for the price of one.

With this amount of tuition reimbursement, Austin estimated that the program could be turning a $100,000-per-year profit within two to three years.

While pre-school has been discussed before, this is the first year it has been formally proposed. Austin said that's because, in spite of the economy, he believes the 2011-2012 school year is an especially good time for Brunswick to begin such a program.

Between the loss of 140 Durham high school students to Regional School Unit 5 and more than 600 from the closing of Brunswick Naval Air Station, the schools have more space now than in the past. Fewer children also means the pre-school program would be smaller now, requiring less seed money from the town.

Both Austin and Perzanoski said they want Brunswick's schools to remain competitive and attractive to new families, and they believe creating public pre-school will help.

“Over time, (universal access to public pre-school) has to be a reality if our kids are going to compete on a level playing field with everybody else," Perzanoski said. 

Austin cited research linking pre-school attendance to success later in life.

For example, the Highscope Perry Preschool Study found that by age 40, adults who attended pre-school earned more money, were more likely to be employed, had committed fewer crimes and were more likely to have graduated from high school than those who did not go to preschool. The Carolina Abecedarian Project linked pre-school attendance to higher test scores, higher achievement in math and reading and an increased likeliness to attend a four-year college.

According to Janine Blatt, early childhood consultant at the Maine Department of Education, this research has spurred a national trend toward creating universal access to public pre-schools in the past decade.

"Maine has pretty much followed those trends, and over the last six to seven years there has been growth each year," she said. She added that Aroostook County has led the charge in early creation of public pre-school, while Cumberland County is coming late to the game.

Brunswick is still a long way from approving a universal pre-school program, especially in a year with an expected large school budget deficit. But Austin is optimistic.

"If not this year, I think eventually it will go," he said.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net