Harford schools expect no significant increase in kindergarten enrollment this fall, when it becomes mandatory for 5-year-olds under a new state law.
"Most of our children already come to kindergarten, or are in acceptable private school or licensed day-care programs," said Barbara Wheeler, executive director of elementary education.
The county expects an increase of about 50 pupils over this year's total of 2,804 kindergarten children, she said.
According to state Education Department statistics, the percentage of Harford first-graders that attended kindergarten -- 83.1 percent -- is lower than the statewide average of 88.5 percent.
Wheeler disputed those statistics, but could not say what the correct percentage for Harford should be. She noted that 217 children are known to be in private school kindergarten, which could affect the numbers.
In any case, she pointed out that there are waivers, alternative programs and home school options under the law that some parents will use rather than enroll children into one of the county's 27 public elementary schools.
A child may be exempt from kindergarten if the parent submits a form verifying enrollment in a licensed or registered day-care program or in a Head Start program.
Parents can also request a waiver based on lack of maturity of the 5-year-old, but the child must attend kindergarten the following year. Home kindergarten school can also be approved by the school system.
May 1 is registration day, or "kindergarten roundup", at Harford elementary schools. Parents with children who are or will be 5 by Dec. 31 are asked to enroll them in elementary school.
Information packets about the kindergarten and other optionswill be available.
Local school systems have been required to offer kindergarten programs, but attendance was voluntary.
Voluntary attendance varied widely in Harford County and elsewhere.
Last year, for example, every first-grade pupil at Bel Air and Churchville elementary schools had attended kindergarten, compared with only 60.9 percent at Bakerfield in Aberdeen.
Superintendent Ray R. Keech expressed concern about low kindergarten attendance levels in schools with a large proportion of children from lower-income or military families, most of which are clustered around Aberdeen Proving Ground in theU.S. 40 corridor.
Students can be educationally handicapped by entering school late, which is reflected in lower performance levels inthose area high schools, he said.
Concern about the preparedness of young children to begin first grade ready to learn prompted the new state law, which requires children to attend kindergarten and lowers the compulsory attendance age to five years.
The law reflects recent research pointing to the lasting benefits of early learning programs.
A national survey of teachers by the Carnegie Foundation forthe Advancement of Teaching found that 31 percent of Maryland children begin first grade not prepared for learning.