'Change is hard'

Education policy groups have urged school districts to be mindful that the standards could have unintended consequences.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children has urged states to ensure that K-12 academic pressures did not trickle down to early-childhood settings, forcing teachers to focus solely on reading and math content and to ignore critical elements such as social and emotional development.

Kyle Snow, director of the association's Center for Applied Research, said that when the standards were introduced, "the early childhood community thought it meant death to play, and teachers are going to take away nap time."

But now that 46 states have adopted the standards, he said, the mindset has shifted to ensuring the standards are being used appropriately.

Snow said implementing the common core in preschool presents an opportunity to prepare students for the standards they will face later.

But he said the problem lies in the fact that there are no standards specific to preschool, and principals and teachers will gravitate toward material their students will be evaluated on.

"We see a 'deer in the headlight' kind of reaction," Snow said. "The preschool teachers are thinking: 'What if my kids leave and go to kindergarten and don't meet the expectations of the standards?'

"It creates a sequence of people — very early on — all of whom are feeling different types of pressure."

Baltimore overhauled its professional development for pre-K teachers, emphasizing that they not only needed to challenge their students, but themselves.

They were encouraged to use purposeful conversation with students. Yes-and-no questions became open-ended ones. Words above the children's grade level weren't to be omitted but explained, modeled or acted out, even if just to expose them to the vocabulary and what the words look like.

Preston, an elementary school teacher for 34 years, likened the shift to the well-known book "Who Moved My Cheese?" about handling change.

"We were definitely anxious, because change is hard," said Preston. "But then the one- and two-word sentences extend to full sentences. The scribbling extends to the writing. You see the growth."

"It's really taking them to the next level," said Tanya Green, a pre-K teacher for 26 years, all but one at Mary Ann Winterling. "Before, we were doing a lot of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, which still have a place. But now my students will say, 'That's fake.' And they may not remember that down the line, but they go to kindergarten knowing the difference between fact and fiction."

Mary Ann Winterling parent Shavon Brockington, 34, said the preschool curriculum has resulted in noticeable improvements at home as well as in the classroom for her 5-year-old daughter, Ariyah Edwards, compared to where her now-fifth-grade son was at that age.

Brockington noted that teachers focus on reading through a "word wall" in which students learn a word each day. And, like Hassan, she cited the weekly homework the children are expected to complete.

"Everything that they learn in school she comes home and redoes — math, reading, songs," Brockington said. "That has helped a lot."

State of readiness

According to the 2012 Maryland Model of School Readiness results, the percentage of Baltimore students arriving at kindergarten "fully ready" increased by nearly 6 percentage points in 2012 — to 77 percent.

The readiness exam, which observes kindergartners in seven areas such as language and literacy, mathematical and scientific thinking, and social development, is administered each fall. Students fall into three categories: fully ready, approaching readiness and developing readiness.