The longstanding assumption that "if you're playing, you're not learning" no longer applies in Baltimore City public schools.
More than 4,500 of the Baltimore's youngest students will descend on downtown Thursday, transforming city landmarks into their playgrounds and cultural institutions into classrooms during the first-ever "Pre-K at Play" event, part of a new emphasis on connecting students' success in school to their experiences.
More than 50 of the city's educational, cultural, athletic and historic institutions will open their doors and attractions for free from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and students, equipped with their natural curiosity and a "passport to summer learning," will be able to document visits to museums, performing arts centers and city attractions. Completed passports will earn students and their families free admission into their favorite institutions throughout the summer.
"Our students are going to hop, skip, run and jump around all of our treasured institutions," said Charlene Iannone-Campbell, director of early learning for the Baltimore school system. "This is a way to get our babies out of the classroom and into a hands-on environment, not only getting to know their communities, but also building their background knowledge."
With the help of the mayor's office and a host of partners, the school system is using the event to launch a new early-learning initiative, aimed at strengthening 4-year-olds' abilities to connect their learning to the world around them. Research shows that what students already know about a topic is one of the strongest predictors of how well they will learn new information.
Schools CEO Andrés Alonso has expanded the city's pre-kindergarten program by 50 percent in the past three years, adding 800 seats just last year. The number of Baltimore students who arrived in kindergarten "fully ready" to learn was up 32.5 percent last year over 2007, with the number of students who attended city schools' pre-kindergarten programs up 61 percent from three years ago.
On Stanford 10 exams, a national test that measures the reading and math ability of first- and second-graders, city students who attended pre-kindergarten outscored students who had no pre-K experience before entering elementary school.
"People think that they're just babies and play all day, and that we're glorified baby sitters. For them, instruction is not regimented, it's definitely about integration," said Kanesha Sheelor, who teaches pre-kindergarten at Edgewood Elementary School.
"And a lot of my students are from here, live here, and have no idea what Baltimore is as a cultural institution," she said. "It's important to get them culturally refined."
Students will take rides on historic ships, go on neighborhood walks in Hampden and Little Italy, and participate in programs at the city's prominent educational institutions such as the Maryland Science Center and the Johns Hopkins University. Community helpers, such as members of the Baltimore Fire Department, will also be part of students' experiences.
The Science Center, which runs a number of programs for city educators and children through age 8, will host the most students throughout the day, with 40 classrooms passing through.
"We thought it was a great idea," said Van Reiner, president and CEO of the Maryland Science Center. "Getting kids at an early age interested in learning is very important. Yes, we're going to be swamped, and that's a good thing."
Reiner said that even the most basic activity can connect a student to a skill, or to a different era.
"We give you safety glasses and a paintbrush, and you brush away some sand to reveal a fossil, then you've experienced a little bit of what a paleontologist does," he said. "So when you're learning about dinosaurs, you can say, 'Hey, I did that.'"
That connection is what Terri Core, pre-K education manager for the school system, said she envisions when she thinks of Thursday. Since October, Core has been calling every major city institution — sometimes repeatedly — until they agreed to take on some 4-year-olds.
"I see the days after Thursday, when our little ones are in the city and say, 'I've been there, I know what happens in there,' and feel a connection to Baltimore that they hadn't had before."