Our children are the future, not only for our individual families, but as part of the next generation of Mainers in which we place our hopes for tomorrow’s world. Our schools, along with parents, are charged with preparing them for that world.
A good education is likely the greatest investment we can make in the next generation. School has started, with children beginning another school year — during which they’ll not only learn math, science and English, but social skills, critical thinking, communication and problem solving.
Early-childhood opportunities for learning some of those skills are important to a student’s success, providing a foundation for personal advancement. Developmental opportunities that young children experience before entering school vary greatly, mostly because of differences in what families are able to provide; Economic disparity contributes in turn to disparity in early learning opportunities.
Luckily, in a number of school systems here in Lincoln County we’re proving that it’s possible to provide quality early childhood education to kids regardless of their family’s personal circumstances.
First, some context: In Maine, 48,000 children are living in poverty, including one in five children under age 5. What’s worse, the rate of children living in extreme poverty climbed about 50 percent between 2010 and 2014. In simple numbers, that’s about 23,000 Maine kids living in households that earn less than 50 percent the federal poverty limit, or about $10,000 a year for a family of three.
Numbers like those prove our state needs to do a better job of helping children escape poverty. That means doing the hard work needed to turn around our economy, support growth of good jobs and reinvent state assistance to truly be a path out of poverty. However, until then, children in poverty remain a reality that our schools deal with every day.
We know that pre-k education makes a difference. Recent studies show that children enrolled in pre-k go on to graduate high school at higher rates than children who wait to begin their educations. Pre-k is also linked to higher IQs, higher incomes, lower unemployment rates and lower rates of arrest for violent crimes. All those benefits give pre-k a phenomenal return on investment — higher salaries and lower taxpayer costs associated with jail and poverty make pre-k an economic no-brainer.
As a lawmaker, staying up to date with studies like that is important. But to see the effect of pre-k, one only needs to hear the excitement in the voices of teachers and parents in RSU 12, where we’ve expanded the Head Start program.
Unlike traditional Head Start, pre-k in RSU 12 provides busing and a full day of comprehensive, age-appropriate programming — relieving parents of the additional transportation and childcare needs associated with traditional half-day programs. All pre-k age students in the district, regardless of their family’s income, can take part in the program. All the students ride the bus together, eat breakfast and lunch together and — most importantly — learn together.
Parents are involved from day one, as highly skilled teachers and coaches/social workers connect with moms and dads to ensure their child’s success. A high staff-to-child ratio ensures kids get the attention they need, and screening and referral services connect kids to any developmental, health or behavior services, ensuring early intervention.
Teachers, parents and administrators involved in the program have been excited to see the children’s growth in engagement, creativity, increased vocabulary, and social development.
The early childhood years are when children’s brains are developing their foundation for language, social skills, and motivated learning skills that lead to greater success throughout life. The results speak for themselves. A principal in one of the RSU 12 schools, observing kindergarten classrooms on the first day of school, noted that she could tell which students had participated in the pre-k program and which had not.
Seeing quality pre-k programs like these fill me with high hopes for today’s children and a sense of excitement that a new school year has started.