SULLIVAN — Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) has been awarded $246,438 to start its own public pre-kindergarten program, RSU 24 Director of Curriculum Nikki Chan reported at the district’s Jan. 4 Board of Directors meeting.
The grant was awarded after a speedy application process was announced by the Maine Department of Education (DOE) in September. The department, which approves and monitors public preschool programs, had funds available for school districts to start or expand existing preschool programs.
The $10 million in state funding has been allocated from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and is part of Governor Janet Mills’ Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan.
The decision for a district to develop such a program is a local one, as pre-K programs are not universally available in the state.
For the last two years, RSU 24 has not had a pre-K program, due to the social distancing requirements from the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, the district had partnered with community agencies, such as Downeast Community Partners (DCP), to offer pre-K programming, but those programs varied throughout the district’s four elementary schools, Chan said.
Now, with the space for pre-K programs at those schools (Cave Hill School, Ella Lewis School, Mountain View School and Peninsula School) made available thanks to the construction of the grades-6-through-12 Charles M. Sumner Learning Campus, those programs can be implemented, along with consistency and equity of programming, Chan explained.
RSU 24 will still partner with DCP in implementing a program, as DCP has resources for parents at home, while the district will cover classroom instruction.
A survey was issued to the community as part of the grant application process to gauge public interest. Of the 62 responses, Chan said 97 percent supported developing a program.
“Pre-K is a very important thing for our district,” she said, citing the lack of private programs in the area and the unaffordability for some families.
Plans for the program, which will start next school year, include offering free pre-K at each of the elementary schools in RSU 24 for five full school days per week, which equates to 31 hours. Parents would be responsible for transporting their children to and from school.
The program is for 4-year-olds, although some 3-year-olds may be eligible to participate as well, Chan said.
There was unanimous approval from the board members who were in attendance. Members Jen DesJardin and Mercy Hardison were not present.
In other business, RSU 24 Superintendent Michael Eastman recapped the updated guidelines and standard operating procedures for COVID-19 response in schools from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Maine Department of Education that were announced on Dec. 30.
Eastman called the shortened isolation and quarantine timelines and modification in who would be considered a close contact of a COVID exposure “pretty dramatic changes,” but updates that are “probably a welcome change.”
He also said that at a recent meeting between Maine superintendents and Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, Shah discussed trying to reduce or eliminate contact tracing that schools must complete when positive COVID cases are detected, citing the extensive work for school staff.
At the board’s Dec. 7 meeting, Eastman’s contract was extended to June 2025.