Study is fuel for full-day kindergarten

Kids at highest risk of failing helped most by extended hours

Less difference for wealthy

Montgomery results give `ammunition' to supporters

September 11, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - Children at the highest risk of school failure get more benefit from full-day kindergartens than their more fortunate classmates, according to a major study in Montgomery County released yesterday.

Results of the study will provide ammunition to the growing number of politicians and educators who say full-day programs are necessary for children from poverty backgrounds.

The close look at 8,000 Montgomery kindergarten children during the 2000-2001 school year showed that poor children and those learning English improved reading skills by almost a third more than similar children with a half-day of instruction, said Montgomery schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

Wealthier children and those for whom English is the primary language benefited little from the three extra hours of daily instruction, Weast said. Their literacy skills nearly tripled - but did so in both full-day and half-day programs.

The study also showed that the greatest gains by poor children were among those who had both Head Start and all-day kindergarten classes, Weast said.

Politicians and education leaders who attended Weast's news conference said they would use the results to campaign for funding of all-day kindergartens. "This will be good ammunition," Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who failed last year to obtain state funding for full-day kindergartens, called the results "splendid news. I'll be carrying this to Annapolis."

Last year, Grasmick sought $23 million to begin a phase-in of all-day kindergartens throughout the state, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening did not include money for the all-day kindergarten expansion in his budget. He did provide $19 million for new education programs, and some of that went to new kindergarten programs.

About 40 percent of the state's kindergartens operate for a full day, but only half of those are financed by the state, Grasmick said.

Baltimore County has full-day kindergartens in 55 of its 102 elementary schools. Baltimore City, which has full-day kindergartens in 74 of 117 schools, has asked for $16 million next year to establish two all-day kindergarten classes in every school and hire 141 teachers and 282 aides.

Releasing the final evaluation of a yearlong kindergarten literacy blitz in Montgomery, Weast pronounced the campaign "a complete success. We proved that it can be done on a large scale. Eight thousand students is larger than 80 percent of the school districts in the United States and larger than a third of Maryland districts. This is one of the largest such studies ever done."

Montgomery put $8.5 million in the literacy campaign, reducing class size in schools with high poverty rates and large numbers of immigrant children, training teachers for 96 hours, devoting 90 minutes a day to literacy instruction and working with parents in seven languages. Teachers were trained to keep a "running record" of their pupils' progress throughout the year. And each child got a half-hour formal assessment three times during the school year.

By the end of the year, more than 80 percent of Montgomery kindergartners had achieved at least basic literacy skills. Sixty-nine percent were reading text, while a third were reading books at the first-grade level or beyond.

When Weast arrived two years ago, he said, he found a kindergarten curriculum "a mile wide and an inch deep." Installing what he called a "classical" curriculum beginning with letter identification and placing much greater emphasis on reading and writing, Weast said Montgomery had achieved a "template" for reforming all the other grades.

A major part of the program, Weast said, was expanding full-day kindergartens in the targeted schools from nine to 34. Class sizes were reduced to 15 or fewer.

Full-day kindergartens statewide have been endorsed by the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, better known as the Thornton Commission, which is expected to release its final report this year.

The state Department of Education estimates that to adjust state aid formulas to provide full-day kindergarten instruction in all Maryland schools would cost an additional $61 million.

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