Kids hone their coloring skills in Jennifer Seed's pre-kindergarten class at Riverton Elementary School in Portland.
Advocates of early childhood education have been touting its benefits for years: "Better jobs, fewer problems with juvenile justice, better paying jobs, fewer teen pregnancies," says Irving Williams, a consultant with the Portland Public Schools.
Williams is currently working to help the district move toward its goal of being able to offer universal access to public pre-k by 2016 - meaning it would be an option for any parent with a four-year-old child.
This concerted push began just a few years ago in Portland. But there are other cities and towns in Maine that have been working on it much longer. When Janine Blatt started her job as the early childhood consultant at the Maine Department of Education nine years ago, she noticed a couple things.
"Aroostook and Washington County had much more pre-school development than, let's say, Cumberland and York," she says.
Blatt says there are a number of factors that determine whether a community develops a public pre-school program: everything from funding, to classroom space, to whether there are other childcare options available to parents.
"In rural communities there are less other opportunities, whether it be Head Start or child care or private pre-school experience," she says.
Currently, just under half of Maine school districts offer at least some public pre-school. A few, including Bangor and RSU 1 - which is Bath, West Bath, Woolwich and Phippsburg - are able to accommodate all families that are interested.
Portland still has a ways to go. On any given year, the district enrolls between 500 and 550 new kindergartners. This year, it was able to accommodate about 90 four year olds in public pre-k.
RonE Bates is thankful that he was able to get his youngest daughter, Gabby, one of those spots. "She's just blossomed exponentially from what she was doing at home," he says.
Bates says that seeing what Gabby's learned in the past five months has sold him completely on the value of public pre-school.
"I hope it continues," he says. "Gabby will be our last one coming through the school system. And she's going to be the first one to experience this. And I think we'd all regret not allowing other children to have these opportunities."
Pre-k student Layla Abbott creates with blocks at Riverton Elementary School in Portland.
This year, Portland has five pre-k classrooms at different locations across the city. Some are in partnership with private programs. Two are at Riverton Elementary School.
Jennifer Seed is one of the pre-k teachers there. "We're in the gym right now because it's too cold outside," she says. "So instead of going outside today, we had to come inside today - we had to come and get our energy out in the gym."
Pre-k in Portland is five days a week, from 8:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.. There's a set curriculum, and Seed says it's heavily focused on literacy.
"We're doing a lot of rhyming, alphabet knowledge, naming letters, beginning sounds," Seed says. "They're learning to write their names, read their names, starting to beginning to write words by sounding them out. A lot of counting. They're just doing a lot of academic stuff they'll need for kindergarten."
A lot of the pre-k year, too, is about socialization. Learning how to be a friend, how to sit quietly and pay attention in class, how to follow a routine.
Seed says that pre-school year can make a particular difference for refugee or immigrant students who are not yet fluent in English. In Portland, that's about 25 percent of the student body.
"For a lot of the ELL families, it's a huge bonus because their kids are getting into school and getting the English exposure a year earlier," she says. "So when they go to kindergarten, they're ready to learn how to read, they're not having to learn the language to be ready to read."
Educators say it also helps level the playing field for low-income kids and families who might not be able to afford a private pre-school program.
Dawn Carrigan, the principal at Longfellow Elementary School, says the district has decided it's more important now then ever to find a way to offer all children in the city access to quality pre-k.
"Our motivation in starting this initiative in the way that we are is really our concern when we looked at the new common core, the national standards for what the expectations are for children in kindergarten now, and how can we achieve those, or meet those, when there's such diverse knowledge and skills that kids possess when they enter kindergarten," Carrigan says.
There is not a clear estimate for how much it would cost Portland to achieve its goal of universal access to public pre-k. David Galin, the chief academic officer for the Portland schools, says that if the district were to do pre-k the way it does kindergarten, it would cost just under $3 million a year.
But that isn't the goal. Instead, the district is taking a what it calls a community approach: starting some classrooms in public schools, like at Riverton, and others in partnership with existing private programs - both to bring down cost, and to take advantage of the expertise and the resources that are already out there.
Photos by Samantha Fields.