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."
Hassan's daughter, 6-year-old Uzziyah, went through the program last year. The 28-year-old West Baltimore resident said he was adamant that his son have the same opportunity.
"It just helps them develop early," Hassan said. "If I put them in a day care, they're going to sit around and play all day, and then once they get to the stage where they're in school they may be a little lost — they may not be in tune with the other kids."
'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.
City officials say that boosting kindergarten readiness is important because it can start students on a successful school career.
"We understood that many of our kids were coming to school already at risk, and the need to remediate put the entire school system in a catch-up mode that we were never leaving," city schools CEO Andrés Alonso said.
While the city's percentage of fully ready students still trails some other school districts, the city had the biggest gain in Maryland.
Baltimore County's 87 percent remained flat, as did Anne Arundel County's 86 percent. Howard County increased from 87 percent to 89 percent. Carroll County saw a slight increase from 95 percent to 96 percent.
The percentage of students deemed ready in Prince George's County, which has a population similar to Baltimore's, fell from 77 percent to 73 percent in 2012. And even high-performing Montgomery County saw a slight decline, from 81 percent to 80 percent.
Other Baltimore-area school districts said that they, too, are in the process of aligning their pre-K curricula with the common core standards, with most expecting full rollouts next school year.
For instance, Baltimore County is going through pre-K curriculum revisions and professional development, and is developing what it calls a "world class Reading/English/Language Arts curriculum" for kindergarten through sixth grade.
Anne Arundel and Howard fully implemented the state's pre-K common core math standards this school year, and their language arts curricula will follow in the fall. Carroll County also has made substantial revisions in math.
A statewide emphasis on early-childhood education has boosted the percentage of Maryland students who enter kindergarten "fully ready" — from 49 percent in 2002 to 82 percent in 2012.
Officials said the state still needs to work on providing access, but Maryland has become a national leader in early-childhood efforts. It was one of nine states that won a $50 million federal Race to the Top grant for early-childhood initiatives in 2011.
The grant has spurred a number of initiatives, including the creation of local early-childhood councils, a rating system for parents to evaluate programs, and revising the state's readiness assessments.
Grafwallner said the state plans to dig deeply into the data to examine why Maryland's scores flatlined this year.
In the case of Prince George's County's significant drop, he said that systemic changes such as the county cutting its pre-K program to half-a-day had an impact.
Baltimore is the only large school district in the state that offers a full-day program to participating students, district officials said. Garrett and Kent counties do as well, but serve only 86 and 119 students, respectively.
Grafwallner said that for the other Maryland districts — all of which have seen 20 to 50 percentage-point gains in the last decade — it is not unusual for scores to plateau when they surpass 80 percent.
"It has called for readjustment, because the level of preparedness is much higher," he said, "and that's where the common core comes in."
Alonso said the district recognized the value of early interventions years ago.
In 2009, the schools chief directed $32 million toward offering more pre-K seats and expanding the program to full-day.
"This was about looking ahead," Alonso said. "We knew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunity, and we wanted to invest it in a way that would yield results in the long term."
And the investment is paying off: Of the district's kindergartners deemed "fully ready," 84 percent came from a city schools' pre-K program. The only students who performed higher were a group of 137 students who came from private nursery schools.
But Alonso and other leaders are concerned that after rapid growth, the number of students in pre-K programs has hit capacity, at about 5,000 students.
That's about 2,000 less than the number of kindergartners enrolled in city schools this school year.
District leaders said the city is looking for more sustainable ways to serve more students, but they are barely maintaining the $29 million-a-year program in 109 schools.
School systems receive no additional funds for pre-K and are required to support the programs from K-12 budgets.
For the past several years, the program has been supported primarily by grant funds. But this year, the district is taking a deep cut in federal grant funding and will support the program mainly through its operating budget.
"We will not be fully successful until we can do it for all kids and until we start interventions even earlier. In the ideal world, we would start with 3-year-olds," Alonso said. "I think the payoff for the city would be immense if we could do that."
On a recent day, Mary Ann Winterling's kindergarten students enthusiastically wrote the signs of spring: walk-ing, swim-ming, grow-ing.
Teacher Johanna Fleury said gerunds would have never been the lesson of the day when she started her career.
And she looks forward to the years to come when students consistently come to her kindergarten classes fully prepared.
"It has almost shifted my job in that I can jump right in," she said. "You can push them. It's almost drastic. I'm doing things now that eight years ago, I couldn't do."
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.
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