South Portland hopes pilot preschool program will fly citywide

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SOUTH PORTLAND — At 8:45 a.m. on Monday, Jodelle Austin and Jen Hobbs were making last-minute preparations for the first day of the city’s pilot preschool program.

It was a moment the School Department had been anticipating. And the snow, sleet and rain falling outside of the donated classroom space at the Youth Alternatives Ingraham building at Brick Hall would not stop that moment from arriving.

At around 9:15 a.m., the first student arrived.

Austin walked to the doorway, knelt down and greeted 4-year-old Derek Montiero.

Montiero shyly placed his backpack in the corner near the door. Austin noticed his shoe was untied, so she offered to tie it.

“Do you like a single knot or a double knot?” Austin said.

“Double,” the boy quietly replied.

Once the shoe was tied to his liking, Derek said goodbye to his mother, Edir, and went to a tiny round table and began drawing.

As students trickled in, they each received the same personal attention at the city’s first public preschool, which is being funded this year by $130,000 in federal stimulus funds.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said the department is applying for a grant from the Cohen Foundation to help fund the program next year before the district becomes eligible for a state subsidy in 2012-2013.

There are 12 students enrolled in the preschool program. Austin said interest has outpaced the capacity, so students were selected through a lottery.

“Some of (the families) are so excited they signed up a year early,” she said.

If all goes well, the department would like to offer preschool to all children by 2015, in both public- and private-school settings.

The program is designed to prepare 4-year-olds for school by introducing them to social and literacy skills.

Austin said students begin each day by doing puzzles and other activities. They wash their hands and have a snack, before the class has a morning meeting where Austin and Hobbs explain how certain activity areas may be used.

Activity areas include dramatic plays, unit blocks, a toy stove and a sensory table that uses sand and/or water to teach vocabulary and motion skills as well as basic principals of science and physics.

After spending an hour at the activities area, students reconvene for 15 minutes of story time then head outside to play (when weather permits). Children come back inside to sing some songs, eat lunch and do more learning before the day ends at 1:15 p.m.

Austin said five children come from homes where English is not the primary language.

Parent Srinivas Kamani said he was excited the city offered the preschool and that his daughter, Veeksha, was able to attend. The family moved to South Portland from India in 2009, where kids begin school at the age of 3.

“This will jump-start her for kindergarten next year,” Kamani said.

Parent Shelly Cragin said she jumped at the chance to send her son, Josia Kenny, to preschool, which can cost around $200 a week at a private institution.

“For the average person, there is just no way” to afford private preschool, said Cragin, who works part-time as a medical assistant. “When I heard they had a free preschool, I was all over it.”

Godin said the first preschool was established in the Brick Hill area because of the high truancy level in that neighborhood.

Starting formal education at an early age could go a long way to reducing expensive educational interventions later in life for students, Godin said, whether they are English Language Learners or at risk of failing.

“The earlier we can intervene with students and expose them to learning and literacy, the bigger the impact on student achievement,” she said.

By Wednesday, Austin said the first week of school was off to a better start than she could have imagined. She attributed the good start to the support from the district, community and YAI, which donated the 800-square-foot classroom.

But, as the saying goes, a good education starts at home, and Austin said these parents are all in.

“The parents have been so wonderful in being a partner with us in this pilot,” she said. “It has turned out better than I could have expected.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or

Sidebar Elements

Teacher Jodelle Austin chats with Veeksha Kamani, left, and Derek Monteiro, right, on the first day of South Portland’s new public preschool program.

Helen Sola, 4, paints a picture on the first day of South Portland’s public preschool program.