Full day helps kindergartners

The Education Beat

Classes: Programs in Montgomery County especially benefit black and Hispanic children.

December 07, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IN HIS best-selling little book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum listed the things children learn in their first year of formal schooling: Hold hands and stick together, play fair, clean up your own mess, don't take stuff that isn't yours.

All important things. But these days children have to learn how to read in kindergarten. And in Montgomery County they're demonstrating how to do it.

Last week, the folks in Rockville announced that the percentage of kindergarten children who can read a simple story doubled from 2000 to last year. Most important, the greatest gains were made by lower-income children in full-day kindergarten. Last year, these children surpassed their peers in more affluent schools that have half-day programs.

Moreover, second-graders in 17 high-poverty schools with full-day kindergarten showed marked improvement in reading over the three years, during which the county decreased class size for those pupils, trained their teachers for 100 hours and greatly strengthened the kindergarten curriculum.

We have here important findings that should be trumpeted to places such as Carroll County, where officials are bellyaching about the expense of full-day instruction.

In Montgomery, most of the poorest students are Hispanic or black, groups that particularly benefit from such programs. If county educators attend to these children as they move through school, making sure no one falls through the cracks, Montgomery could become the first district in Maryland to close the minority-white achievement gap.

The state will require all-day kindergarten in every school by 2007. It's one of the sensible recommendations that came from the Thornton Commission. But the idea is opposed by two groups: those who don't want to pay the price and those who think kids at age 5 can't stand a full day of school.

It turns kids into widgets, they say, takes the joy out of learning. Young children won't sit still that long. You can't test 5-year-olds. (The same complaints were lodged in 1992, when the state made half-day kindergarten mandatory.)

Nonsense, says Jerry D. Weast, the Montgomery superintendent. When he arrived in 1999, nine Montgomery schools had full-day programs. Weast was aware of research showing that the achievement gap between minority and white kids starts long before they enter school. Affluent children's vocabulary begins to grow with the richness of interactions with parents at the ages of 1 and 2. They're surrounded from birth by the accouterments of literacy.

By the third grade, the research shows, they're pulling away from everyone else. One of the first things Weast looked at was a report by the Honors and Advanced Placement Work Group, a committee charged with evaluating Montgomery high school honors programs. Almost without exception, the committee found, the county's honors and Advanced Placement students had been reading at or above grade level in the third grade.

Weast and his staff decided not to simply extend the half-day by adding time for academics, as some educators have done. Instead, they revamped a program that was essentially free-lance, with every school doing its own thing. They wrote a curriculum and put it in place in every school. They trained teachers. They integrated reading and math with the crucial things Fulghum learned in kindergarten. And they assessed their efforts from day one.

It's possible that only Montgomery among Maryland districts could have pulled this off. The district is run like a corporation, with the strong, self-assured Weast as its chief operating officer. Montgomery is no longer filthy rich - it has more than its share of urban problems - but it has the wherewithal to undertake a program, train the teachers and call in the researchers, and to do it without having to be dragged, kicking and screaming.

Trust gives $1,750,000 to each of 4 colleges

At a Baltimore luncheon last week, the Hodson Trust handed out $1,750,000 each to the Johns Hopkins University, Hood College, Washington College and St. John's College. It's an annual event that the schools love because the money is a gift they can use for scholarships, academic programs and construction.

The trust was established in 1920 by the family of Col. Clarence Hodson, founder of the Beneficial Corp., a financial services company. Merry Christmas.

Correction

Last Sunday I mistakenly identified Ohio state Sen. C.J. Prentiss as a man. Old habits die hard.

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