Pine Street Elementary pre-K teacher Amy Daniels reads a Halloween story to students Elliot Archer (front, center), Elizabeth Rooney, (right), Dawson Kalloch, Riley Totten and Dawson McLaughlin. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Despite its rural setting and high poverty rates, Aroostook County is leading the state when it comes to pre-kindergarten enrollment.

Though enrollment declined statewide during the pandemic, more Aroostook parents opted for public education than any other part of the state, by a wide margin.

Local and state experts say easy access and public investment are a big part of Aroostook’s success. Now legislators and advocates are turning to The County as an example of how public pre-K could expand throughout the state.

“I think public pre-K in The County has a lot to do with the culture of the region. It’s something that all schools just do,” Rita Furlow, senior policy analyst with the Maine Children’s Alliance, said.

“Transportation is one of the biggest strengths. There’s this expectation that you guys are just going to get those kids [to school] no matter what.”

In more urban counties, parents often do not enroll their children in pre-K due to a lack of transportation. With higher populations, schools in southern Maine counties struggle to fund expanded or new programs without adequate state funds or local support for property tax increases, according to Furlow.

In Maine’s largest county, transportation, affordability and the lack of child care options prevent many infants and toddlers from learning the social and emotional skills needed to succeed in school. But once those children turn 4, pre-K works to fill in those gaps.

“There are 20 public pre-K programs in Aroostook, from Houlton to Madawaska and Fort Kent and in between,” said Megan Barnes, director of programs for Aroostook County Action Program. “Most of those [programs] are part of school districts, so parents don’t have to worry about transportation. And they’re free.”

According to the Kids Count Data Book, a report published by the Maine Children’s Alliance, Aroostook’s rate of public pre-K students was 73.8 percent during the 2020-2021 school year. The statewide rate was 35.6 percent.

Prior to the pandemic, the County’s rate of 92 percent was tops in the state.

Pine Street Elementary pre-K teacher Amy Daniels assists Dawson Kalloch during a lesson on shapes. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

The County’s rate also exceeds those of other rural counties, including Piscatquis (48 percent) and Somerset (58.5 percent). The more urban Cumberland County and coastal Hancock County have the lowest rates of pre-K students in the state — 18 percent.

Barnes said the decrease in enrollment rate from last year to the current year follows trends brought on by the COVID pandemic.

When schools returned to in-person learning in fall 2020, many parents opted to delay their children’s pre-K enrollment due to health and safety concerns. Workforce trends also played a role, as many parents opted to leave their jobs and remain home.

While Maine has seen widespread population loss for much of the past decade, Aroostook began experiencing those trends much earlier, particularly after Loring Air Force Base closed in Limestone in the 1990s. Since then, public schools were quick to invest in pre-K programs in an effort to intervene in children’s education early and set them up for future school and workforce success.

Though that investment has not curbed population loss in The County, students have been more likely to score high on state exams, graduate high school and enter higher education, Barnes said.

She pointed to one second-grade class from southern Aroostook school in which all 35 children had completed the school’s pre-K program.

“One hundred percent of those students scored at average or above average in literacy skills,” Barnes said.

Pine Street Elementary pre-K students Parker Bradley (left), Alainah Stitham, Samuel Cyr, Delilah McLaughlin and Bella Carmichael get ready to move along with a song during an afternoon lesson. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

Furlow credits Aroostook with seeing the benefits of early childhood education several decades ago and creating programs before future economic strains would make tax increases less popular.

Barnes and Furlow are in favor of expanding pre-K access in Maine through a universal pre-K program, which would likely come from federal funds if Congress passes President Biden’s now $1.9 trillion Build Back Better Plan.

Currently, Maine law lets individual school districts decide whether to start their own pre-K program, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Though Aroostook is already in a strong position in providing pre-K services, universal pre-K could allow for expansion to all-day classrooms instead of the current two- to three-hour morning and afternoon sessions. Maine schools are also discouraged from offering more than 10 hours of classroom time per week, according to the Maine DOE’s Chapter 124: Basic Approval Standards for public pre-K programs.

All-day classrooms, Barnes said, benefit working families and provide more stability for children. More classroom time would also mean the potential to once again expand the rate of pre-K students across Aroostook County.

“Full-day, full-week enrollment meets the needs of entire families,” Barnes said. “It all goes back to having access and intervening early so that families understand the importance of early childhood education.”

Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled the last name of Rita Furlow.