Md. schools chief offers kindergarten alternative

Grasmick proposes using private day care to fulfill Thornton requirement

December 08, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

For local school boards grappling with the expense of state-mandated all-day kindergarten beginning in 2007, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is offering an alternative. Counties, she says, should consider sending children to licensed private child care providers for part of the day.

Grasmick is presenting the option as the all-day concept comes under attack from some suburban jurisdictions, where many parents say they don't want their 5-year-olds in school for six-hour days and school districts are worried about the cost of adding new classrooms.

Some local school board members and lawmakers are talking about trying to amend Maryland's landmark education reform law, commonly called the Thornton Plan, to allow some districts to opt out of the kindergarten requirement.

While the Thornton Plan provides counties with state money to teach kindergartners, it doesn't contain cash for the classroom space to house them. That capital expense has emerged as one of the biggest sources of contention, although local districts have other concerns as well.

So Grasmick is developing a list of alternatives for counties. At the top: signing contracts with local child care providers.

"I don't think people have thought about it," Grasmick said in a recent interview. "I feel it is allowed by current law. I've had the attorney general look at the Thornton legislation, and it's acceptable."

Day care centers must be licensed and accredited to enter contracts with county school districts, the superintendent said.

"When we accredit child care programs, we think they are doing a terrific job," Grasmick said.

Since 1998, Maryland has been training private child care providers on how to teach the skills and goals needed to make sure children enter school ready to learn through the Maryland Model for School Readiness program. Maryland is the only state in the country to assess all kindergartners in specific performance measures, including language and literacy, mathematical thinking and the arts, officials say.

But a specified curriculum is not required to receive state or national accreditation, said Linda Heisner, head of the state Department of Human Resources Child Care Administration.

Advocates and experts on child care in Maryland welcome the opportunity to mesh private programs with those of public schools. Such coordination, they say, will improve education for children.

"What we are all interested in is the integration of preschool programs, and that kids go to school ready to learn," said Sandra J. Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children, a Baltimore-based nonprofit group that works on child care issues.

While parents who have placed their children's names on waiting lists for preschool programs may wonder whether enough child care capacity exists for such an idea, state officials think it does - although vacancy figures appear anecdotal.

"We've had enormous growth in child care," Heisner said, noting that capacity statewide has grown from 65,624 spaces in 1991 to 143,572 this year.

"We are hearing from providers that they have a vacancy rate of about 20 percent. Many of them have it for 4- or 5-year-old programs," she said.

Most programs, however, are not accredited, Heisner said.

Some local school officials worry about a loss of control over teachers and curriculum, transportation costs as well as parent reaction to such a plan.

"I would think our curriculum people would see that as an inferior alternative," said Courtney Watson, a school board member in Howard County, which is preparing to spend $12 million for 87 modular classrooms attached to elementary schools to meet the kindergarten requirement.

"I would rather see us extend the implementation of all-day kindergarten to a later date than use independent contractors all throughout the county," Watson said. "I think it's important to do it right, not just to do it."

Susan G. Holt, Carroll County's school board president, questioned whether a child care setting would provide the same media time, physical education and other activities as a public school.

"It's not a viable option," Holt said. "Are you looking for the education of that child and having them prepared for first grade, or are you looking to subsidize day care? And is that right?"

Skolnik of the child care committee said such criticism reflects an unwillingness by local school authorities to change their way of thinking. In tight budget times, officials should be looking at creative uses of existing resources, she said.

"They want to do it themselves," Skolnik said. "Collaboration is not easy. It is a more difficult model to work in. ... The local education agencies really have to rethink how they go about doing business."

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