City's revamped pre-K showing promise

Pioneering effort makes subtle changes such as interactive reading

  • Lauren Preston, a Mary Ann Winterling Elementary pre-kindergarten teacher, congratulates (right) Samonte' Reid, 4, as they work on numbers and sets. Niy'shei Whitaker, 4, center, watches.
Lauren Preston, a Mary Ann Winterling Elementary pre-kindergarten… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
April 27, 2013|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Before Lauren Preston opened the cover of the book "Spring" to read to her pre-kindergarten class at Mary Ann Winterling Elementary School, her students excitedly told her why, and showed her how, the season was underway.

Daffodils — not just "yellow flowers" — were appearing from beneath the soil, they said. Hyacinths were blooming, they demonstrated with the slow unfolding of their tiny fists. And butterflies were emerging, the students showed by flapping their curled arms.

In pre-K classrooms around Baltimore's school system, subtle changes like interactive reading are having a substantial effect in helping prepare 4-year-olds for elementary school — addressing an achievement gap that city schools have faced for years.

"They are talking to me, they are more involved in the stories, and I'm getting them to understand new vocabulary," Preston said. "They may only be able to show me they understand by drawing pictures or moving around. But they understand."

The students in Preston's class are part of an effort in Maryland to create a new era in early-childhood education. The city's advanced introduction of rigorous academic standards, the "common core" that will be introduced in all state public schools this fall, targets its youngest learners.

Some educators nationwide have cautioned that the new emphasis could lead teachers to ignore other important lessons, including social development. And in Baltimore, some teachers were anxious about the change, fearing that "rigor" meant limiting the traditionally nurturing environments in which young children develop.

But that strategy has shown results in the city. In 2012, Baltimore kindergartners showed an unprecedented rise on the state's standardized "readiness" assessment — even as scores in the highest-performing districts were stagnant or declined. The performance of those students, among the first pre-kindergartners introduced to the revamped curriculum, also allowed the city to close in on the statewide average.

"To us, that means that there's something happening in pre-K in Baltimore City that is showing an added effect beyond what's happening in pre-K statewide," said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state schools superintendent for early childhood development.

Early-childhood education has become a major initiative of President Barack Obama's recent budget, which called for a tax increase to offer universal preschool. In addition, the annual "State of Preschool" report to be released Monday shows a nationwide 10-year low in access to quality early-education programs and state funding for the programs.

The common core, designed with international competition and college- and career-readiness in mind, will drastically transform curricula, particularly in literacy and mathematics, across the nation.

Elementary school students will be required to know the difference between informative, explanatory and opinion writing by kindergarten; and to add and subtract fractions and comprehend, quote and compare literature and historical texts by the time they leave fifth grade.

In 2010, the state adopted the common core standards, designed to start in kindergarten, with guidance for pre-K curriculum. Baltimore immediately overhauled pre-K lesson plans for the 2011 school year — a process now underway in most other school systems — in preparation for a full rollout of the standards next school year.

Grafwallner said Baltimore's "very deliberate and targeted effort in pre-K" has sparked an interest at the state level in surveying other districts' efforts to prepare their youngest students for the common core.

"There seems to be some strategic moves that we want to investigate further," he said. Baltimore "started early. And it should be gratifying for them to have figured that out."

In the classroom, that meant swapping "Jack and the Beanstalk" for "From Seed to Plant" to teach how plants grow, making way for nonfiction authors on the shelf next to Dr. Seuss and requiring a grocery list for playtime on the kitchen set.

"It really took courage to do this," said Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer for the city school system. "Our teachers said at the beginning, 'We're really freaked out by this nonfiction thing.' And we had to really convince people that this does not mean that we have 3- and 4-year-olds sitting in chairs scribing or tracing numbers all day. But what it did mean was that we were not going to be afraid of this content."

Parents with children enrolled in the pre-K program at West Baltimore's Mary Ann Winterling praised the curriculum and said it has left their children far more prepared for school.

"What I remember from preschool is games, nap and playtime. I didn't have to carry a book bag — I remember that," said Wali Hassan, whose 4-year-old son, Malik, had a Batman book bag strapped across his shoulders. "Now they come home with a week's worth of homework."

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