Kindergarten, say educators, is more than just numbers and learning to spell your name.
"Children learn to interact with other children and in groups," said Joe E. Wilson, principal of Mount Washington Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore, which yesterday held a kindergarten registration session at the Pimlico Mayor's Station. "They learn to work together."
A kindergarten setting gives children an important first taste of formal schooling, said Mr. Wilson, whose 360-student school enrolls about 60 to 65 kindergartners.
"Children who would come into the first grade without having some school experience -- either private nursery school or private kindergarten -- many times we found that those children needed some extra assistance," said Mr. Wilson.
That crucial preparation is a reason for the state's new mandatory kindergarten law, which goes into effect this school year.
The law applies to children who turn 5 on, or before, Dec. 31 of this year, and it requires that they be enrolled in kindergarten this September.
There are a few limited exceptions to the law.
Parents who believe that their children simply are not ready to attend school are allowed to notify the school system of that fact, and they will get a one-year postponement of the requirement. But those children still must complete kindergarten before they can enter the first grade, under the new law.
In addition, parents can satisfy the mandatory kindergarten requirement by sending their children to a full-time state-licensed day-care center, or full-time licensed family day care.
Parents can also satisfy the requirement by enrolling their children in private kindergarten or Head Start or by teaching them at home in accordance with state guidelines.
In general, however, the new law marks a major change in the hTC state's strategy for making sure that children are ready for the tasks they face in the first grade.
Previously, the state required all local school systems to offer optional kindergarten. But children still were allowed to bypass kindergarten and go directly to first grade.
State education officials have estimated that about 95 percent of all young children attended optional kindergarten prior to this year. But state auditors also have said that as many as 3,600 children in Maryland missed kindergarten.
And proponents of mandatory kindergarten argue that children most in need of early children education were often the ones who entered first grade ill-prepared.
"Failure is cumulative," said Martha J. Fields, a state education department official familiar with the debate over mandatory kindergarten.
Children who fall behind early in their school career are more likely to lag behind their peers as they go along.
"We believe these are the kids who ultimately drop out of school," Ms. Fields said.
In Baltimore, the law is expected to add hundreds of students to the city's 122 elementary schools, at a projected cost of $1.6 million, said Karen V. Poe, a spokeswoman for the city school system.
Last year, the Baltimore school system enrolled 8,996 kindergarten students. This year, it is expecting 10,329 kindergartners in a total projected enrollment of 107,866.
The city school system has attempted to publicize the new requirement through mailings to parents and public service announcements in the local news media.