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New preschool signals change in Portland schools

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New preschool signals change in Portland schools

PORTLAND — Nearly two dozen children scurried about the sun-splashed playground at the Portland Arts and Technology High School on a seasonably cool Monday morning.

Many of the faces, having attended nursery school there last year, were familiar to PATHS' early childhood development teachers. But this year, the 4-year-olds are part of a new, state-approved preschool program in the Portland Public Schools.

The PATHS preschool program, which started Sept. 20, is the district's third. Preschools are offered at Riverton Elementary School and the East End Community School in partnership with the People's Regional Opportunity Program's Headstart program.

But the PATHS school is a pilot program for a new model, which partners the school district with private preschools, to deliver early education to young students.

The 26 students enrolled in the preschool program are overseen and instructed by teacher Irving Williams, of the PATHS early childhood occupations program, and Carrie Garrett, a certified preschool instructor at the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery.

Williams said the model being tested pairs public school teachers with private preschool centers, allowing the district to take advantage of the expertise that already exists in the community.

"We recognized early there is a wealth of expertise in the community for programming for young adults," Williams said. "To ignore or not include that would not be a good thing."

Additionally, the program provides cross-educational benefits for high school students. About 15 PATHS students are enrolled in the early childhood occupational program and receive hands-on experience educating the 4-year-olds, plus college credits.

Williams said the program received a $30,000 start-up grant. Future funding will need to come from the operational budget, he said.

Williams said he is part of a working group of teachers, administrators and community members studying ways to make preschool education available to more families in the city.

The group, whose recommendations could range from building preschool classrooms into existing elementary schools to using public funding for classrooms in private facilities, is expected to report to the School Committee in January.

"There are implications to staffing," Williams said. "So, that's why we're making the recommendations early in the year."

When the group reports, it will likely argue that early childhood education is a better investment than trying to help students catch-up later in life.

Williams said research suggests that, for every $3 invested in early childhood education, districts can save $7 by not having to invest in special education and academic interventions later in life.

Furthermore, Williams said students who went through preschool are also less likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system or experience teen pregnancy.

Garrett said the students spend five hours in preschool four days a week. The day is broken into two, 2.5-hour blocks. After paying outside, kids are called into the classroom for some quite reading time.

The group is assembled for "circle time," where rules of classroom are discussed, stories are read and songs are sung. 

"Really, for early childhood development, the most important piece is the social and emotional piece," Garrett said.

Then, children are allowed to choose their next activity from a variety of stations meant to teach the basics of reading, writing, math, science and art. During this segment of the day, the PATHS students take over as instructors, with Garrett and Williams close by for assistance. 

"I love it," said 17-year-old Serina Greenlaw, a senior at Falmouth High School, who had just finished reading to two children and was preparing bowls of Cheerios for snack time.

"I love all the kids," she said. "I want to go to school to be a kindergarten teacher, so this is a good start."

While students work with children four days a week, Garrett said Fridays are devoted to working with the students to fine-tune their teaching skills.

The district said in a press release that it will receive a state reimbursement for each child enrolled in the program. About 40 percent of the enrolled students come from low-income families, who do not have to pay for the service.

A family would have to pay more than $140 a week for the child to attend a full time preschool program at Catherine Morrill Day Nursery.

Although it is looking for ways to increase access to preschool, Williams said the district may not be able to offering the program to the 500 children who are estimated to be eligible.

However, Williams, who has pushed for early childhood education for more  than 20 years, is excited to have an administration open to expanding programming.

"The goal is to have a classroom in every elementary school so the program can go citywide," he said. "This is a transition year."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net