All-day K in Baltimore County

July 16, 1992

When he was appointed Baltimore County school superintendent, Dr. Stuart D. Berger was advertised as energetic, impatient, impulsive and frank to a fault. Just weeks into his tenure in Towson, we rest certain that no Truth in Advertising laws have been violated.

Before he had even succeeded long-time superintendent Robert Y. Dubel, he succeeded in ruffling feathers by criticizing the strict disciplinary code of the county's model anti-drug program. Before he had even finished his first day on the job, he had shuffled around a couple dozen educators and eliminated a host of vacancies. Now, just two weeks into his administration, he's announced a major program to expand kindergarten from half-days to full-days in almost a third of Baltimore County's 94 elementary schools.

It's an intrepid attempt by the system to broaden its reach to some 2,000 children, most of them from poorer communities. The program, announced yesterday, addresses a goal the school board stated when it hired Dr. Berger, to sharpen the focus on elementary education.

The results of the initiative, to begin this fall, remain to be seen, but what was immediately impressive was how the new superintendent so quickly whisked aside the county's political and budgetary storm clouds.

Having skippered the schools for 16 years, Dr. Dubel was well-respected and admired, but face it, his schools had entered dead water politically. Relations with the county executive and council were bad and apt to get worse with Annapolis poised to chop local aid again. Along comes an outsider able to view the budget in a different light and he finds 107 positions, including 46 for the kindergarten program, through apparently painless savings in allocations for school buses, food service, textbooks and paper.

All-day kindergarten -- tried elsewhere in Maryland only in rural Garrett and Caroline counties and partly in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City -- is certainly an adventurous posture that many will applaud. However, it will also raise questions from people who wonder whether a full day of schooling is proper for all 5 year olds, how the system can expand kindergarten in the face of unmet secondary school needs and whether county taxpayers are simply being asked to pick up the bill for glorified day care.

Interestingly, in Montgomery County, where budget constraints threaten to end the limited all-day kindergarten, its school board recently voted to make parents pay tuition to send their kindergartners all day. That unprecedented plan for public education needs approval from the state and county council.

The merits of Dr. Berger's bold stroke may be open to debate, but the sight of the superintendent, County Executive Roger B. Hayden and representatives from the county council and school board drunk with praise for one another, and the teachers' union pleased to boot, was a refreshing change in the politics of Baltimore County.

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