Full-day kindergarten puts children ahead in schooling But lack of funding limits availability

November 28, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

For kindergartners in the Dundalk area, a home address determines more than the elementary school they will attend. It also affects whether they receive 6 1/2 hours of schooling each day or fewer than three -- and how much they learn.

While Dundalk Elementary School offers only a half-day kindergarten program, youngsters who attend any of six nearby elementaries -- Logan, Grange, Sandy Plains, Charlesmont, Bear Creek and Battle Grove -- spend a full day in school.

That disparity, educators say, can be an important factor in determining how quickly children adjust to school and learn to read.

"It just doesn't seem right, because our kids need the full-day kindergarten as much as any of the other children in the neighborhood," says Renee Peoples, a parent at Dundalk Elementary. "If we want all of our children reading by the second grade, it seems like we should have all of our children in full-day programs."

Maryland law requires school districts to offer only a half-day of kindergarten, but state educators almost universally agree that a full-day program is better, particularly for children who have not been read to very much at home.

Research -- including new studies from the National Institutes of Health -- shows that kindergarten is a crucial period for children's development of language and early reading skills.

But in Baltimore County and most other Maryland localities, classroom space and money severely limit full-day kindergarten programs. For example, Howard County educators have talked for years about offering full-day programs but, in one of the area's fastest-growing systems, not enough classrooms are available.

Even in Baltimore County, which leads most other area districts in the percentage of schools with full-day kindergarten, the program is in place at only 41 of the 101 elementaries.

"I don't think there's any question that having children in a full-day program better prepares them for first grade," says Clayton W. Myers Jr., the district's early childhood coordinator. "But when you look at our schools, there just isn't the space. As it is, teachers are using every available room in most of our schools."

At the full-day program at Chase Elementary School near Middle River, results of the extra instructional time can be seen in those children who are able to read simple stories.

The 430-pupil school -- among the 20 county elementaries with the highest percentage of children coming from low-income families -- has space for only one full-day kindergarten group. Teachers and administrators at Chase are forced to choose which children are enrolled for 6 1/2 hours and which for a half-day.

"We decided to pick those students who are closer to being ready to read, because they'll be able to better use the extra instructional time," says Chase Principal Maria G. Hofmann. "We want to make sure it's not baby-sitting."

Each morning, teacher Cindy Ray leads her 22 pupils through a series of reading exercises, relying heavily on a program developed by the Johns Hopkins University called Reading Roots. It emphasizes phonics -- the teaching of letters and sounds, and how they make up words.

"Tim's cap is on Nick's cot," Ray and the children read together from "The Costume Party." Then the kindergartners split into pairs to read the story on their own, reading the simple sentences to each other.

By the end of the day, children in full-day kindergarten will work on reading and language development for twice as much time as the half-day group. They will also participate in lunch, art, physical education and other activities. A 25-minute quiet time is part of every afternoon.

By first grade, teachers at Chase can tell which pupils have been in a full-day program and which haven't, both in terms of academic development and the way they've adapted to school routines.

"From the first day of class, it was pretty clear which students had been in the full-day program and which ones weren't," says first-grade teacher Christopher Brown. "It wasn't just which children were better readers. The ones in the full day were better adjusted to the rhythm of the school -- how to have lunch, how to go to music and the library."

The full-day program was begun in Baltimore County in summer 1992, weeks after Stuart Berger became superintendent. He ordered kindergarten to be expanded to a full-day in almost a third of the county's elementaries, targeting those schools with lower test scores and higher numbers of low-income families.

Since then, it's been added at only nine more elementaries. Yet it remains one of the few initiatives begun under Berger's tumultuous tenure that continues to be widely praised.

Across Maryland, 10 of the 24 districts offer full-day kindergarten in 172 schools, including about 40 schools each in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, the most recent survey by the State Department of Education shows. Howard County began a full-day program for some children in four elementaries this year.

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