Schools gear up for all-day kindergarten

Learning: Some districts are ahead of others in implementing the state mandate to keep the youngest pupils in the classroom longer.

August 22, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

When 5-year-old Travis Zovko starts kindergarten next week at Columbia's Cradlerock School, he will spend a full day learning letters and sounds, recognizing geometric figures and identifying animals and other objects.

Travis is among a growing number of children in the counties surrounding Baltimore who will begin attending all-day kindergarten where previously only half-day classes had been offered.

"Since they expect kids to read by the end of kindergarten, just 2 1/2 hours aren't enough," said Lisa Zovko, Travis' mother. "With half a day, you can't meet those expectations. Because most children have preschool experience, there is no reason to make kindergarten half-day as well."

Under a state mandate that school systems implement full-day kindergarten by the 2007-2008 school year, Howard County and other districts in the Baltimore region have been working to meet that deadline. Some are further along than others.

This school year marks the first step of Carroll County's progress, with four of its 21 elementary schools offering full-day kindergarten. The remaining schools will be phased in over the next three years, as in Howard County.

In the meantime, school officials there hope to persuade legislators to eliminate or delay the 2007 deadline, arguing that most of their kindergartners succeed in half-day programs.

Other systems, such as in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, are ahead of the pack, having offered full-day kindergarten since the late 1990s.

In Anne Arundel, which has 77 elementary schools, officials are adding 13 more schools this year to a list of 11 sites that have full-day kindergarten.

In Howard County, seven of 38 elementary schools will offer full-day kindergarten.

Of the projected 3,000 kindergartners for the 2004-2005 school year, officials are expecting 466 full-day pupils, but that figure could grow.

Full-day kindergarten almost didn't happen this year in Howard, after the former superintendent left it out of his proposed 2004-2005 budget, noting limited funds.

But the school board restored money for full-day kindergarten at seven schools with the highest percentage of pupils who receive free and reduced-price meals - instead of the original 10 - by trimming millions from the budget.

"We're very excited about all-day kindergarten starting this year," said Courtney Watson, Howard County school board chairman. "We think we'll see great results."

Studies show that full-day kindergarten improves children's learning and achievement in reading and math.

An emphasis on school readiness and a push for reading achievement also have prompted Maryland in recent years to direct more resources to educating preschoolers and kindergarten pupils.

As part of its full-day kindergarten mandate, the state also requires prekindergarten for economically at-risk 4-year-olds.

Howard County is spending about $2.2 million this fiscal year on implementing full-day and prekindergarten programs.

"The research is quite clear that children who have exposure to extended stimulation and opportunities ... are going to do better when they get to first grade," said Anne Yenchko, director of Howard County's Judy Center partnership, which provides services for preschool and kindergarten children.

"That's particularly true for children who have limited exposure to academic enrichment activities, like pre-reading skills and basic math concept skills," Yenchko said.

School officials have been preparing for full-day kindergarten, including curriculum writing, reassigning classrooms and training teachers, for two years.

The full-day kindergarten curriculum will expand on lessons taught in half-day classes, said Tracy Jones, Howard schools' coordinator of early childhood programs.

A new component of the curriculum will emphasize instruction on thinking and learning skills.

The extra four hours allow for daily instruction in reading and math, as well as more in-depth lessons in health, science and social studies, Jones said.

"My philosophy is that young children can learn a lot when challenged appropriately and when we teach them in ways that meet or match who they are as 5-year-olds," Jones said.

"We want them to go into first grade knowing how to handle themselves in the classroom," she said. "For academics, if we are moving everyone along, hopefully everyone will go in - at minimum - ready for first grade."

The children also will receive weekly instruction in music, physical education and art by specialized teachers instead of classroom teachers.

Pupils will be able to buy lunch, and they will eat as a group in the cafeteria.

While some parents may worry about whether their 5-year-olds can handle the longer hours, Jones said full-day kindergarten won't be structured like a first-grade classroom. The pupils will be allowed to move around and take breaks.

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