For many parents, it's their first experience with the Howard County school system -- and also among their most disappointing.
As they register children for kindergarten in one of the state's wealthiest and most progressive school systems, parents learn that Howard has no full-day kindergarten, unlike some counties with fewer resources.
"I was surprised it's not available," said Melissa Miller, whose daughter, Alexis, is finishing morning kindergarten this year at Guilford Elementary School. "The kids are ready, so it just doesn't make any sense."
It is a gap that school officials and principals agree should be closed. An additional three hours of daily instruction would be invaluable for children at an early stage of learning, they say.
Although they prefer not to think of schools as day care, most county educators acknowledge that such a program also would provide the child care needed by many of Howard's two-income families.
However, officials say it will be at least five years before Howard offers full-day kindergarten because of a squeeze on classroom space and the decision to put spending priorities elsewhere.
"We just do not have the space in our elementary schools to have full-day kindergarten, and we do not have the money to staff it," said Susan Cook, chairwoman of the Howard school board. "We would love to do it, we believe in it, but we just can't rTC do it."
Half-day kindergarten programs typically run for 2 1/2 hours, allowing teachers to instruct one set of students in the morning and another in the afternoon. Full-day programs often run for the length of the elementary school day, 6 1/2 hours in Howard.
In Maryland, 10 school systems offer full-day kindergarten in a total of 172 elementary schools. Most of those are in the state's larger school systems -- 40 in Baltimore, 37 in Baltimore County and 42 in Prince George's County, according to the most recent survey by the Maryland State Department of Education.
A surprised parent
"I expected to see it offered here," said Orrester Shaw, the principal of Talbott Springs Elementary School who came to Howard this year from Baltimore. "It kind of surprised me not to find full-day kindergarten in Howard schools."
And it's not just large systems that offer full-day programs. Rural Somerset County has full-day kindergarten at four schools, and Garrett County offers it at all 10 of its elementary schools.
"I look at the other school systems and think it's something we should be doing," said Howard Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "I've wanted to do it ever since I came to Howard" in 1984.
Educators throughout Maryland agree on the importance of kindergarten in early education, particularly now that the state grades the performance of school systems based on the performance of students as young as third-graders.
In the 1992-1993 school year, the state -- citing the benefits of early-childhood preparation for school -- made half-day kindergarten attendance in a public school or accredited private program mandatory for all children entering first grade.
Child care help
Full-day kindergarten would benefit students even more, academically and socially, while helping their parents with child care, said Edward Alexander, director of Howard's elementary schools.
"Teachers would be able to do a good deal more with their instruction with the extra time. They would have the flexibility to deal with the wide needs of students, which they might not always have in a half-day program," Alexander said.
The additional three hours of instruction can be particularly helpful for students from lower-income households or from homes where English is not spoken, said Rolf Grafwallner, the state education department's chief of early learning.
Both of those groups, although relatively small, are growing in Howard. From 1991-1992 to 1994-1995, the number of students with limited English proficiency increased by 33 percent, and the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches rose by 60 percent.
"It's a way for a school system to address the readiness of students coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds," Grafwallner said.
In addition to the academic benefits, Alexander said that "from a societal point of view, child care needs are paramount for working parents, and a full-day program would help them out."
It was the need for child care that helped spur Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia to try full-day kindergarten three years ago when the school began "school-based management" giving it more control over its daily operations.
"It was the No. 1 priority of parents," said Jacqueline Lazarewicz, principal of Clemens Crossing.
The school held a lottery for the one full-day class it was able to offer. But, despite its success and popularity, the program had to be discontinued after one year when the school's enrollment grew and the building ran out of extra space.