Portland schools may seek outside help for costly expansion of pre-K

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PORTLAND —  With the belief that early childhood education provides an essential foundation, the Portland Public Schools is pursuing what could be an expensive goal: universal pre-kindergarten.

The School Board received an update Oct. 16 on the progress that’s been made when Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana suggested “the most comprehensive and cost-effective approach” would be a partnership between the schools and the Opportunity Alliance.

Under this scenario, the hope would be to enroll 140 students in pre-K programs supported by the School Department, but operated by the Opportunity Alliance, within the next five years.

Botana acknowledged, however, that there are financial and logistical obstacles that must be overcome.

A cost analysis shows that in the first year the program would cost just over $939,000, which is about $150,000 more than the School Department already spends on limited pre-K.

But in the fifth year the cost would jump to $3.1 million.

In all, Botana said the cost would be nearly $13,000 per student per year in today’s dollars. However, he made it clear he would not expect or ask for all of the funding to come from the school budget.

Transportation, creating classroom space and giving families before- and after-school programming options are also issues that need to be resolved, Botana said.

In defense of providing more pre-K opportunities, he told the School Board that a recent study conducted by Starting Strong, a Portland-based organization focused on school readiness and literacy, shows “increased access to early childhood education is a (key) strategy for improving (student) achievement.”

Melea Nalli, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said, “We want students to come to school ready to learn, which means increasing the percentage of students who have received a high-quality pre-K program.”

“There’s high impact and strong benefits” to providing pre-K, she added, “especially for those growing up in poverty.”

The School Board didn’t have to be convinced about the advantages a pre-K program can provide, but members did have a lot of questions about how such a program could be funded and what the next steps might be.

The essential question, Botana said in an interview, is whether the board wants to reaffirm its commitment to increasing the number of early childhood classrooms in the city.

In 2011, he said, as part of the district’s first comprehensive plan, the “board called for the establishment of universal pre-K in Portland. Since that time, progress has been made, but we did not have a strategy for matching capacity and need.”

That’s why last fall the School Department began working with Starting Strong to look at how universal pre-K could be accomplished.

One of Starting Strong’s suggestions was to turn to the wider community for support, which is one reason Botana is now suggesting a partnership between the Portland Schools and the Opportunity Alliance.

“There are tremendous advantages” to this option, he told the School Board. “All the classrooms would be run by The Opportunity Alliance, and they are better equipped to offer support services and other (before and after school) programming.”

Botana said he hopes the School Board will make a decision over the next couple of months, since enrollment and facility studies are underway and work on the 2020 fiscal-year budget will soon be starting.

“This is important now,” he said, “because as we work to analyze our capacity against our enrollment, we need to account for present and projected enrollment (and) an increase of 140, or more, pre-K students needs to be accounted for in that process.”

In its study, Starting Strong also suggested that the School Department find ways to educate the public about the need and importance of universal pre-K, which will be vital as the district seeks outside funding.

The Opportunity Alliance, which is based in South Portland, said it already operates 12 classrooms for 4-year-olds in locations around Cumberland County, including one in partnership with the Portland schools in Parkside.

“The Opportunity Alliance is a known provider of high-quality early childhood education programming. It is an activity we know well and can develop further,” Michael Tarpinian, CEO of the social service agency said.

“Additionally, there are many support services that we can offer families that will enrich their educational experience. We work with the Portland Public Schools in many ways already, so this is a good way to extend our partnership with them.”

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

The Portland School Board received an update earlier this month about the possibility of partnering with The Opportunity Alliance to expand the city’s pre-kindergarten options.

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