TRENTON — Trenton Elementary School this fall will become the first school in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System to have a prekindergarten program if voters at the May 15 town meeting approve funding for it.
Voters will be asked to provide $58,000 in local tax money, roughly half of the anticipated first-year cost. The other half would be covered by federal Head Start funds.
“Probably one of the biggest things teachers have shared with me over the last couple of years is the importance of early social-emotional skills development in kids,” Trenton Elementary Principal Mike Zboray said.
“We have been finding that when we get our kindergarteners … some are already reading and doing some writing, and others haven’t been getting the same [level of] enrichment and socialization. We’re finding they have deficits around language acquisition and fine motor skills and just self-regulation.
“I have huge support from the staff for pre-K,” he added.
Zboray cited a University of Maine study that included a cost-benefit analysis of public pre-K programs. It found that every dollar invested in such programs can ultimately save taxpayers $7.
Zboray said the savings come mostly in special education.
“If you’re able to intervene earlier and provide support for kids, you might not need that extra ed tech when, come third grade, the child is still struggling,” he said.
For a number of years, principals and school board members in Trenton have been talking about the desirability of a pre-K program, but the nearly $120,000 start-up and first-year cost was always considered prohibitive.
Then, earlier this school year, Zboray began talking with potential pre-K program partners, including Downeast Family Partners in Ellsworth, which administers the Head Start program in this area. He also talked with elementary school principals in Bucksport, Prospect Harbor, Cherryfield and Harrington, which offer half-day pre-K programs funded by Head Start.
“All of those principals talked about how good it is,” Zboray said.
But Trenton wants to offer a full-day program. So the plan, pending voter approval, is to match the Head Start funds with local funds so that can be done.
“Downeast Family Partners would hire the teacher and ed tech in concert with me,” Zboray said. “They would provide the curriculum. We would share in furnishing the room; we have some of the chairs and tables already. And we would provide the food service.”
The pre-K program could accommodate up to 16 four-year-olds. And because Head Start would be paying half the cost, half of the slots in the program would be reserved for children from economically disadvantaged families, as determined by federal guidelines.
Zboray anticipates an enrollment of about a dozen children in pre-K at Trenton Elementary the first year.
With both pre-K and the typical day care program, there is a lot of play and socialization. But Zboray said there are some differences.
“With pre-K, there’s a prescribed curriculum. There are standards and certain things they work on in math and literacy, fine motor and gross motor skills, artistic creativity and just how we get along with each other.”
Educators and board members in other Mount Desert Island Regional School System elementary schools have said they would like to offer pre-K, but none have developed specific plans.
Offering pre-K across the school system is one of the ideas Superintendent Marc Gousse has asked the MDIRSS board to consider. He said a number of people expressed support for pre-K education at the forums he held in the eight school system towns last year. He also received comments and suggestions online.
“One of the most powerful testimonials I received was from educators at a number of schools who said they have kids coming to them with a lot of needs and that the playing field isn’t level,” he told the school board in November.
At a Mount Desert School Committee meeting earlier this month, Gousse said of pre-K education, “It levels the playing field for children entering kindergarten. There is much research that confirms it.”