At Hamilton Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore, Jennifer Naughten's pre-kindergarten class of 4-year-olds is seated on the floor in an attentive semicircle.
The class is discussing a previous day's outing to the Maryland Science Center. Later, they will draw pictures of what they saw for their parents.
"Who remembers what type of animals we saw?" asks Mrs. Naughten, in warm, encouraging tones reminiscent of "Miss Nancy" and "Miss Sally." "Nathaniel? Do you remember an animal we saw yesterday?"
Nathaniel screws up his face in fierce concentration.
"A turtle?" he offers.
"Good!" exclaims Mrs. Naughten, clapping her hands. "And how did the shell on the turtle feel?"
Nathaniel looks puzzled for a moment, then shrugs. "It felt fine," he says.
Mrs. Naughten smiles. "I know it felt fine," she agrees. "But did it also feel hard or soft?"
"Oh," says Nathaniel. "It felt hard."
Children -- 3- and 4-year-olds -- are cute. No doubt about it. They are clever, energetic, and always eager to learn, and it used to be that parents kept them close to home until they reached kindergarten or first grade.
But that's rapidly changing.
Twenty-five years ago, only about 10 percent of the nation's 3- and 4- year olds attended school. By last year, that had quadrupled to over 40 percent. And by 1995, most educators expect the percentage to multiply yet again.
"In the 1989-1990 school year, public schools enrolled over 1 million 3- and 4-year olds for the first time in our nation's history," said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
"As you can see," he continued, "this is a whole new role for the public school system and it is coming about because of some major changes taking place in our society: the increasing divorce rate, the increase in mothers in the work force."
In Maryland, the percentages and numbers of youngsters attending either a public or private preschool program are even higher.
State officials estimate that nearly 65 percent of all kindergartners last year had attended a preschool program.
"We're seeing more and more parents seeking some sort opreschool experience for their children," said JoAnne L. Carter of the state board of education's early childhood education office.
"And public schools are responding to that need. It is," she said, "just one more way the public schools are trying to serve the family."
"Census figures indicate that 77 percent of the Maryland children under 12 years old had mothers in the labor force," noted Janet Singerman, deputy director of the Maryland Commission for Children.
"That's an estimated 588,157 children under 12 with working mothers," she continued. "Now, we have found, anecdotally, that about 40 percent opt out of formalized care. Still, the need, the demand, obviously is great."
Noted Meg McFadden, a licensed day care provider in the city, "Even those few parents who are home with their children during the day find that there's no one else at home for their children to play with. They find they have to go out of their way to find playmates, and eventually many of them also start looking for a preschool program."
But the demand for preschool training is one thing. More importantly, educators are convinced such programs also benefit the child.
In fact, there appears to be near-unanimity among educators on the importance and benefits of pre-kindergarten programs -- which is startling enough in a field in which there seems to be as many philosophical approaches as there as PhDs and M.A.s.
"Developmentally appropriate early childhood education has been demonstrated since 1886 to be good for little children," said Sandy Skolnick, director of the Maryland Commission for Children.
Perhaps even more surprising is that public officials at the national, the state, and the local level also support the concept.
Last year, the president's education summit proclaimed that by the year 2000 all children will enter kindergarten or the first grade "ready to learn." The main vehicle toward achieving this national goal would be through quality preschool programs funded federally by Head Start or Chapter One and by state and local governments.
"It is one of our highest of highest priorities -- getting youngsters into quality programs," said Joseph L. Schilling, state superintendent of schools.
"There is too much solid information about the value of such programs for us not to be doing this," Dr. Schilling continued.
In its on-going study of the long-term effects of the state-funded pre-kindergarten program, the department of education found that pre-K graduates averaged up to 13 months ahead of their peers on standardized achievement tests when they reached the eighth grade. They were less likely to be retained in grade, and less likely to drop out. Fewer pre-K students were referred to special education programs in later years compared to their peers who did not participate in a pre-kindergarten program.