All-day kindergarten in Balto. Co. gets high marks Students spend more time learning

April 12, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Sharon Ranocchia walks along with her students as they drift through the cafeteria line. "Peaches or applesauce?" she asks each one.

Then it's milk and dessert: "Ice cream sandwich or a Drumstick?"

Finally, she helps little hands fish through plastic sandwich bags for enough money to pay for the hot turkey sandwich and other items.

It's lunchtime for the 53 kindergartners at Colgate Elementary School in Eastern Baltimore County.

Before September, helping students select fruit, free stuck thermos caps and keep track of quarters weren't part of Ms. Ranocchia's teaching duties. And lunch wasn't a part of the students' day. Now they're second nature to both.

Ms. Ranocchia and more than 100 other teachers began Baltimore County's first all-day kindergartens this year, adding hours and chores such as lunch and nap routines.

But the extended days also have added learning time for thirsty minds, helped teachers get to know students better, improved attendance, increased independence and raised self-esteem -- for students and teachers, school officials say.

Until last fall, the county taught kindergartners in half-day sessions from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Now, in 102 classes in 32 schools, the half-day program has been replaced with a full-day regimen. The kindergartners are in class from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with lunch and physical education, and art, music and library sessions just like the older students.

"They get just a lot more instructional time," says Sue Johnson, a Hillendale Elementary teacher. "Being here all day, there's a little more flexibility." That allows for more individual attention, she adds.

"The teachers feel that one of the biggest pluses for them is that they know the children a lot better," says Lois Valentine, the supervisor of early childhood education for county schools. "That's been a real eye-opener."

The decision to extend the kindergarten day in about one-third of the county's elementary schools struck like lightning last July, a couple of weeks after Stuart Berger became superintendent.

It made Baltimore County one of six jurisdictions in Maryland to offer the full-day program. Baltimore and Prince George's and Montgomery counties have started all-day kindergartens in some schools. Caroline and Garrett counties offer it in all schools.

The decision in Baltimore County also required some scrambling as the schools hurried to accommodate the 2,100 all-day students. And it evoked considerable criticism from parents and teachers who said a 6 1/2 -hour day was too long for 5-year-olds.

Dr. Berger pushed the all-day kindergarten idea. His staff chose schools largely in lower-income areas to give needy children extra instruction.

The program cost more than $4 million to start, though about half of that money was recovered in reduced transportation costs.

Because school money is tight, there are no plans to open more all-day programs next year, Mrs. Valentine said.

Even though the decision to start all-day kindergartens came at midsummer, "It was a delightful surprise to us," says Harry Belsinger, the Colgate principal. "They made it work," he says of his kindergarten teachers, Ms. Ranocchia and Robin Michaux. "We met constantly during the summer."

Now, the critics are fewer. "We had some parents who were not prepared for it. Most have changed their minds about the program," Mrs. Valentine says.

"To say that we don't have some complaints would be dishonest," she adds. Among the unhappy are parents who live in areas that offer only half-day programs.

Nevertheless, full-day kindergarten is beginning to look like a success.

"If you would have asked me in September, I would have said 'No, our kids can't handle it,' " says Denise Lewis, a paid parent helper at Hillendale Elementary. "If we didn't give them naps, it would be too much. But it's working fine. We have a whole day and it's great."

Ms. Ranocchia says, "It's like two days in one. They're picking up things so much quicker than they did in the half-day."

That's the idea.

The kindergarten curriculum is the same for full- and half-day students. It is not as structured as first grade, say teachers who have taught both.

"We felt we had enough curriculum," says Mrs. Valentine. "The half-day teachers complained that they were never able to finish." Indeed, Ms. Ranocchia now wonders, "How did I ever do it in such a short amount of time?"

Ms. Johnson, who helped write the all-day guidelines, says, "We did not add units, but we are able to expand on them."

Students not only talk about "the signs of spring," they go outside and find them, talk about them later, read books about them and incorporate them into classroom activities.

"Children need . . . hands-on experiences," Mr. Belsinger says.

Teachers and student have had to make adjustments. Ms. Ranocchia, for instance, gave up half of her classroom to make space for the second kindergarten.

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