All-day class earns top grade

Full-day sessions get an `A'

Kindergarten: Howard's first stage of full-day sessions appears to be meeting expectations of teachers and parents.

February 13, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

I'm ready to read.

I feel it in my knee, tap, tap tap.

I feel it in my heart, beat, beat, beat.

I'm ready to read with my eyes.

I'm ready to read, left to right.

It was 9:20 a.m. and pupils in JoAnne Mezei's kindergarten class had finished singing along to the music and were ready for their reading lesson.

"We're reading The Mitten," Mezei told the youngsters, who sat on the rainbow-colored floor. "It was adapted by Jan Brett. What does that mean?"

Olivia Inskeep raised her hand. The 5-year-old explained that Brett heard the Ukrainian folk tale - about forest animals who discover a mitten that had been dropped by a boy - and wrote it down.

This was the scene on a recent weekday in Mezei's classroom at Stevens Forest Elementary School in Columbia - one of seven schools in Howard County that offers full-day kindergarten where previously only half-day sessions had been offered.

It has been six months since Howard County launched full-day kindergarten with much fanfare, excited about its potential. About 440 pupils are enrolled in full-day kindergarten, while the remaining 31 Howard elementary schools will phase it in over the next three years.

By all accounts, the all-day program - which will expand to 12 more schools in the fall - is meeting expectations of county teachers and parents. But because kindergarten pupils don't take quarterly assessments as upper-grade children do, central office administrators have been collecting anecdotal evidence from teachers.

"Overall, there are many children who are much further along in learning and development in full-day kindergarten," said Tracy Jones, Howard schools' coordinator of early childhood programs.

Olivia's mother, Rhonda Inskeep, agreed, saying her daughter has been making "incredible strides."

"When she came in, she wasn't reading," said Inskeep, a math support teacher at Stevens Forest Elementary. "She was ready for it, and now, it's amazing what she's reading. She's reading books. The full-day program is a nice opportunity to prepare for the transition into first grade, and get them ready for first grade and the high expectations that Howard County has."

Across the country, traditional half-day classes have been replaced by full-day ones, supported by research showing that all-day kindergarten improves children's achievement.

Maryland requires school systems to implement full-day kindergarten by the 2007-2008 school year, although some state lawmakers have likened it to a free baby-sitting service. The school board in Carroll County has been fighting for an exemption from the requirement.

Regardless, an emphasis on academics has transformed kindergarten. It is not all fun and games anymore.

Kindergartners are expected to do and know more by they time they enter first grade, such as having basic reading and math skills. They even have homework.

While 5-year-olds can absorb and learn a lot, instruction is tailored to meet the developmental needs of active youngsters, Jones said.

Lessons in reading and math are interspersed with 10 minutes of singing, break time or exercises. Nap time is a bygone practice.

"Kindergarten is very fun," Jones said. "It's very deceptive because it looks like no learning is taking place, but learning is taking place. The magic of kindergarten is that they have so much to learn but the teachers are so clever."

She added, "When people think about full-day kindergarten, people think it looks like first grade or second grade. It was important for us that we maintain the feel of kindergarten."

During a recent visit to Mezei's bright classroom, most of the children seemed ready to learn, raising their hands and volunteering answers.

At one table, a handful of pupils read aloud from a picture book, Winter, as Mezei helped them.

"Winter is cold but we can play," Mariana Orellana read aloud. "We have fun on a winter's day."

"You are such a good reader," Mezei told her. "You must have practiced."

Across the room, instructional assistant Beth Wilkinson worked with another group of pupils, who were working on a reading exercise after listening to the story "Snow Dance" on headphones. On sheets with word balloons labeled "beginning, middle and end," they drew scenes from the story or wrote down in complete thoughts what happened.

"What could you tell me about the story?" Wilkinson asked.

"The story was about playing outside in the snow," 5-year-old Veronica Lizarraga answered.

The first half of a 6 1/2 -hour day is usually devoted to differentiated instruction in reading and math - where pupils are grouped by ability level.

Most of Mezei's 20 pupils are reading, remembering vocabulary words and creating sentences, she said.

"They're showing skills now that I probably saw in March and April in half-day programs, particularly for ELL [English-language learners] students," said Mezei, who has taught kindergarten for 20 years.

In math, Mezei's pupils are learning to count money by adding and subtracting. One group is working on first-grade math skills.

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