WATERVILLE — Little Jia-Li Kao, 2, rolls play dough out into a pancake and then shapes it into a ball and presents it to her mother
“A tomato!” she exclaims.
The curly-haired tot giggles as she sits at a tiny table with two little boys Wednesday in a classroom at the brand new, $9 million Educare Central Maine on Drummond Avenue.
She doesn’t know that she is attending the first rural Educare, an early childhood education program that is so unusual that the ABC News program “20/20” is going there to film on Tuesday. Or that the premise behind Educare is that most brain development occurs between birth and 5; or that Educare is designed to prepare children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
Even her parents, Kathleen Lewis, of Albion, and Li-Wei Kao, of China, admit they are not fully aware of the significance of the program. But they know it’s cutting edge.
“It’s just the beginning,” Lewis said. “It’s only the third day. I don’t know a lot about Educare. What I do know so far, I really like a lot. And one important thing is, it feels nice to go to work and not be worried. I don’t leave here thinking, ‘Oh, my word, is this a safe place? Is this a dangerous place?’ I don’t feel that way. Jia-Li looks forward to it.”
Preparing children for school
The 36,000 square-foot Educare facility opened a week ago, next to George J. Mitchell School on Drummond Avenue. The two buildings are connected by an enclosed corridor.
That connection is important because children and staff in the schools will interact and Educare may use the school’s resources such as the library and gymnasium.
Most of the Educare children will transition seamlessly into and attend the elementary school once they turn kindergarten age, according to Eric Haley, superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro schools. Haley, a former high school principal, oversees the Educare program.
“As a high school principal, I realized many years ago that we’re just getting children too late,” he said. “This is a dream come true, really — something I never envisioned would happen in my tenure in education. I’m thrilled.”
Haley says an extensive assessment program is in place to document Educare’s effectiveness. Officials hope to duplicate the program all over the state to help improve education for all children.
Educare will serve 210 children from birth to age 5 — and their families.
But this school isn’t just for kids: Parental involvement is an important part of the program, as well. Parents are welcome in classrooms any time. They interact with staff. They take nutrition and parenting classes. Staff make weekly home visits and make resources available to parents.
Students from area colleges studying early childhood development and education will train at Educare. Classrooms have observation rooms for staff, parents and students.
Scholarships are available to offset the cost of enrollment, which averages $10,000 per student, per year, according to Colfer. Many of the children are from economically-disadvantaged homes and are Head Start-eligible. The school, open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., primarily serves Waterville students, but those from other municipalities also attend.
“This is a mixed socio-economic group,” Colfer said.
Sixty-three people, including teachers, custodians, and kitchen staff, work at the facility, she said. About 40 came from Kennebec Valley Community Action Program and Kennebec Valley Community College where early childhood education programs were absorbed into the new facility, and 20 new staff were hired. A preschool at the Mitchell school also was incorporated into Educare.
The air-conditioned facility has 14 classrooms, hallways with play areas, a state-of-the-art kitchen, conference rooms, a parent resource room and a large, comfortable, glassed-in lobby. The facility has a lot of natural light from large windows and skylights.
“This is designed to be staff-efficient as well as child-focused and friendly,” Colfer said Wednesday during a tour.
A very large “natural playground” winds around the outside perimeter of the school. It features paved bike baths, grassy areas, a water spigot, stepping stones, bridges, swings and play houses.
“One of our focuses is health — physical activity,” Colfer said.
The school also has an inside playground with padded floor and walls so that children may play in the winter when it is too cold to go outside.
Doris Buffett of the Sunshine Lady Foundation gave $3 million in seed money for the project; the William and Joan Alfond Foundation gave $2 million, to be matched by $4 million for completion of construction and a start-up endowment.
The BOUNCE national network contributed $1 million and many private donors and foundations also pitched funds to the project.
The state invested $2 million toward the Alfond match with funds from the Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Ounce of Prevention Fund also is a partner.
Gov. John Baldacci nominated KVCAP’s Head Start for the Federal Center of Excellence Award, which would give nearly $200,000 a year to Educare over the next five years.
Kaiser said a child’s father asked how in the world Waterville got such a facility.
“We were selected because we were ready,” Colfer said. “Early Head Start and Head Start have been working with the public schools for a long time. That’s what sold it here.”
The schools and early childhood programs have for several years worked together and identified what works and what doesn’t, and what children need to be ready for school.
On Wednesday, Jia-Li’s parents watched as teacher Joni Sprague worked with their daughter and the children in the classroom.
“She says to me all the time, ‘Mama, I love it — I love my new school,’” Lewis said.
Amy Calder — 861-9247
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