Reap what you sow

October 14, 2002

FOR THE SECOND year in a row, Montgomery County's investment in all-day kindergarten for selected schools has paid off. Lower-income students targeted by the project have been matching or outperforming their peers in other, wealthier county schools, and making significant gains in early reading skills.

These early test results confirm the value of extending the school day for 5-year-olds, especially those who start school lacking skills needed to become strong readers. Numerous studies suggest that children who start school with letter and sound basics, and active vocabularies, tend to get and stay ahead through their academic careers; their peers who are behind at the starting gate too often never catch up.

To tackle head-on the seemingly intractable roots of the "achievement gap," Montgomery County has spent $11 million to target the neediest children first, and plans to phase in day-long programs for the rest. The start-up required a custom-made curriculum, teacher hires to ensure smaller classes, and for some schools, portable classrooms to house programs.

The strategy is still being perfected: Intensive phonics instruction will be added to help children of the fast-growing immigrant population learn English. But overall, praiseworthy results send this message: You reap what you sow.

Only 49 percent of children enrolled in kindergarten last year were considered fully ready to learn, a state study shows. Given this well-established need, plus the increasingly documented benefits of programs such as Montgomery's, why is it taking so long for all-day kindergarten to spread statewide?

What are the school districts waiting for?

Many are waiting for 2007-2008.

That's when Maryland's newly minted school-aid formula will offer the most financial help for all-day programs (provided the state follows through with future-year Thornton Commission allocations). And that's when the law will require districts to provide all-day kindergarten, a mandate that will add an estimated 600 classrooms statewide.

To their credit, some districts are not postponing the inevitable: State officials say Allegany, Garrett and Caroline have for some time had all-day kindergarten; Baltimore City and Prince George's County school systems expanded their programs districtwide.

Others may be watching their bottom lines instead of their children. Sure, it's a political, financial and educational risk. Sure, it will take time to see whether the initial progress made by all-day kindergartners can be sustained long term. And sure, all-day kindergarten is but one component, and not the cure-all, for the stubborn achievement gap. But the success seen to date in programs such as Montgomery's would suggest that expanding to all-day kindergarten sooner, rather than later, is a better choice than writing off underprepared children for five more years.

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