Sedgwick’s struggle to preserve a quality child care center

Michele Levesque, 42, of Sedgwick, asked her 4-year-old son, Jasper, who his favorite teacher is.

“All of them,” he replied.

Jasper attends the Peninsula Early Care & Education Center in the Hancock County town of Sedgwick. The educators at the Head Start center are teaching him the alphabet, how to write, what a calendar is, how to interact with other children and many other things.

“I think the program is wonderful. I totally appreciate that we have access to the program,” said Levesque, who is a local school board member. She and her husband run the Mexican restaurant El El Frijoles in Sargentville. The quality child care service (it received the state’s top rating) allows her time to work and is giving her son a jump on kindergarten, she said.

But despite the fact that it’s the only program of its kind on the peninsula — it’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., five days per week, year-round — it was one of many centers that had to absorb funding cuts when the Maine Legislature voted last spring to reduce by half the state’s contribution toward Head Start. Though a majority of funding comes from the federal government, the state cuts mean the Sedgwick program will close during the summer months.

Levesque said she believes the disruption in services will end up costing more in the long run, in part because children will have to relearn what they were previously taught. Also, summer is when parents need child care the most, particularly on the peninsula when residents are working multiple jobs and longer hours to try to earn as much as possible before winter comes again.

She will find other child care services, and her mother will likely watch Jasper a lot, she said, but she knows the options for Maine’s youngest could be much better.

If Maine and the country want a first-class workforce, they must make sure children enter kindergarten ready to learn. Otherwise achievement gaps only widen over time. The Nobel-prize-winning economist James Heckman, for example, has shown that dollars spent on quality early childhood education result in a 7-percent to 10-percent return on investment when program participants start contributing to the economy. The best programs don’t just focus on academics. They emphasize nutrition, emotional development and family involvement.

Yet where has Maine cut funding? From its children — especially those who most need the services.

Child and Family Opportunities oversees 11 centers for Early Head Start and Head Start in Washington and Hancock counties, serving about 350 children each day. Because of the Legislature-approved cuts, the agency’s state funding was reduced 82 percent: from $393,000 in 2011-12 to $71,000 in 2012-13, according to executive director Doug Orville.

Orville opted not to eliminate an entire Head Start center but decided rather to close classrooms at centers in Bucksport and Ellsworth, lay off some of the staff there and turn the Sedgwick center into a part-year program.

Both Orville and Don Buckingham decry the fact that early education isn’t prioritized more. Buckingham is both the principal and 7th and 8th grade math teacher of Sedgwick Elementary School, out of which the Head Start program operates. He has seen the program’s results. Children who have gone through two years of preschool are better able to follow directions, listen and learn, he said.

The center started in the first place because the local community recognized the need. About five years ago, St. Francis by the Sea Episcopal Church, in Blue Hill, decided to devote some of the capital campaign funds it had raised to enlarge the church to focus on early childhood needs. Child and Family Opportunities, Sedgwick Elementary School, the school board and selectmen all agreed they would welcome a program devoted to their youngest, said Pam Siewers, of Sedgwick, who is a senior warden at St. Francis.

So the Peninsula Early Care & Education Center was born. It has provided services to more than 70 children from Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Penobscot, Sedgwick, Sargentville, Harborside, Deer Isle, Ellsworth and Bucksport.

For many reasons, it is the type of program that should be expanded, not cut.

We all have such hope for newborns and recognize their great potential. Then over time it becomes harder and harder for children, especially those who live in poverty, to have a fair shot. Expanding early childhood education isn’t going to solve all of Maine’s economic problems, but, if done responsibly, it will certainly help. And it will do right by some of the little ones we care about the most.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.