Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007

Final phase of full-day kindergarten under way

Freedom and Mechanicsville elementary schools in Sykesville will receive the program in the fall

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
Katie White, Jack Bulakites and Nicholas Skewers play pin ball Tuesday with their kindergarden class during gym at Eldersburg Elementary School. The school is one of the first in the county to receive the full-day state-mandated program. The final phase-in is set for fall 2007.
The full-day, state-mandated kindergarten program that Carroll County began phasing in two years ago is proving successful, according to teachers and central office staff.

‘‘The standards we want the children to achieve are the same, but now they are able to have more time to explore,” said Anna Varakin, a supervisor of elementary education for the county.

In the fall, the six remaining elementary schools without full-day kindergarten will begin teaching all-day classes, adding to the 15 schools already using the format. Maryland law requires counties to provide full-day kindergarten to all students by this fall, and the county has responded by slowing phasing it in over the last few years.

Freedom Elementary and Mechanicsville Elementary schools in Sykesville are two of the six schools that will receive the program; others include Hampstead, Manchester, Runnymede and Sandymount elementary schools.

A proposed operating budget of $298 million for the upcoming school year, presented at a Board of Education meeting Jan. 10, allots $2 million to establish full-day kindergarten in the remaining schools, covering the salaries for teachers, assistants and specialists, said Superintendent Charles Ecker.

Sharon Schroder, a Mechanicsville Elementary kindergarten teacher, is looking forward to teaching a single class for an entire day. ‘‘I think it will be exciting to have one class; one set of parents to do conferences with; one set of assessments,” she said.

The additional time will allow the class to move at a slower pace, she said. ‘‘Just being able to spend more time with the students — that’s the important thing.”

Varakin said she is planning to meet with the kindergarten teams from each of the schools to discuss what is working and what isn’t in three major areas: curriculum, professional development and assessment. At this point, she said she has met with 19 of the 21 kindergarten teams.

Wendy Gahm, a Parr’s Ridge Elementary teacher who has taught kindergarten for 27 years, said the new format provides more time for students to do age-appropriate activities, which includes participation in social development activities, while being able to ‘‘still maintain the rigorous curriculum” the county demands.

The longer day allows students to focus on science and social studies, and for physical manipulation of objects in classroom learning stations. Kindergartners are able to go to ‘‘specials,” which are classes instructed by specialists, such as art, physical education or music.

Gahm said she has been able to tie in a technology component, and her students have regularly been working in school computer labs, something that was not available to them during half-day kindergarten because of time constraints.

There is also more time for guided reading, which Varakin said is evident in the children who have gone on to first grade.

‘‘[First-grade teachers] are amazed at how much the students know about reading,” and, Varakin said, studies have shown that kids who learn to read in kindergarten perform better academically as seniors in high school than students who didn’t.

Shifting to the all-day classes also gave the county the opportunity to level the educational field between schools with what materials are available to students, Varakin said. ‘‘There is not the haves and the have-nots.”

The county purchased supplies and furniture unique to the kindergarten classrooms, and students can use the sand and water tables and easels to further their interactive learning, whether they attend a school built a number of years ago, such as Winfield Elementary in Westminster, or at Parr’s Ridge, which opened in 2005 with all-day kindergarten.

Gahm said she has noticed students adjusting well. Their ‘‘learning is progressing beautifully,” she said.

‘‘The kids are going to go home tired the first few weeks, but so are the teachers,” Varakin said. Despite the adjustments and longer schooldays, she said there has been an overall positive response, and ‘‘I have had not one teacher say they wanted to go back to half-day.”

Gahm said parents also have had to make adjustments. Some parents expressed concern about their students going to the cafeteria and purchasing meals at lunchtime.

But Gahm said that after two or three weeks, the students became ‘‘very independent.”

Schroder expects the same outcome. ‘‘I’ve had parents in the past be concerned about all-day kindergarten,” she said, adding that when parents look at all their students have to accomplish in the shorter day, they are more understanding and receptive to the idea.