Kindergartner Kelly Breeden used to worry about starting first grade next fall, but not any more. Her new friend, first-grader Kimberly Martin, told her everything she needs to know.
"She's telling me what it's like and what we're going to learn about," Kelly, 6, said last week as she toured the first-grade classrooms at Columbia's Stevens Forest Elementary School. "It helps a lot."
As the school year draws to a close tomorrow, elementary-school students across Howard County already are looking ahead to next fall -- and worrying about new classrooms, new teachers and new friends. Their schools have organized numerous activities to prepare them for the change.
For current kindergartners and fifth-graders, the transitions may be particularly traumatic. Many kindergartners, for the first time, will be going to school full time. And fifth-graders will face the jump from elementary school to middle school -- marking their step into adolescence.
"It's a pretty big change for them, which is why we do special programs to let them look ahead to next year," said Deborah Drown, the principal at Running Brook Elementary School, also in Columbia. "If we didn't do anything, the kids would sit and worry all summer."
Activities offered by the county's 32 elementary schools include tours of new classrooms and schools and introductions to new teachers and schoolmates.
"We've been writing to our pen pals at the other elementary schools that will go to Hammond [Middle School] next year, and then we got to meet them," said Heather Brundage, 11, a fifth-grader at Laurel Woods Elementary in Laurel. "It helped to meet them and get to talk to them. It'll be easier for next year, when we're all in classes together."
At Stevens Forest last week, the kindergartners spent about 45 minutes in the first-grade classrooms, learning about the curriculum and routines of a full day of school. Kindergartners and first-graders also exchanged letters they had written to one another about first grade.
"You have homework, but the homework is OK," first-grader Denzel Wilson, 6, advised kindergartner Lauren Kaufman, also 6. "It's pretty fun here. You get [physical education] and art and music."
The kindergartners also needed to learn one of the most basic elements of going to school for a full day -- how to purchase a hot lunch.
Food-service staffs at the different schools prepared "minilunches" for kindergartners during the past several weeks to introduce them to the variety of foods and how to select what to eat each day.
After trying his first school lunch, kindergartner Ben Marschner, at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City, was excited about being able to buy his own meals next year.
"I'm going to order chocolate milk every day, but I think I'm going to get in trouble because of my mom," Ben said. "She wants me ordering regular milk, not chocolate. I will have to wipe my face after it."
For fifth-graders, the biggest fears are as small as lockers and floor plans. Next fall, the students will be responsible for traveling from class to class on their own -- and on time.
"I'm worried that I'm going to get lost and stuff," said Ji Chung, 11, a Northfield fifth-grader.
And fellow Northfield fifth-grader Kabeed Mansui is sure that he won't be receiving any directional help from the older students next year. "I just know that the eighth-graders are going to point me in the wrong direction," said Kabeed, 11.
Remembering locker combinations also preys on the minds of the fifth-graders.
"Lockers are a big deal," said Andrew Barshinger, principal at Pointers Run Elementary School in Clarksville. "But the middle schools know from doing it year after year that the kids are anxious, so they let the kids in early in August to look around. They can just practice on their lockers if they want."
Because middle school symbolizes entry into adolescence, the county's elementary schools also prepared fifth-graders by focusing on two more serious subjects -- drugs and alcohol.
In the most recent school survey of substance abuse, one in five sixth-graders had drunk beer or wine within the past 12 months and about 60 percent of middle school students will have tried alcohol by the time they move on to high school.
With those statistics in mind, Laurel Woods fifth-graders' performance at their promotion ceremony last week was devoted entirely to the school's Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. Singing songs and doing skits, the children spent 45 minutes emphasizing the importance of staying away from drugs.
"Some of the peer pressure really begins in middle school, particularly from the eighth-graders," said Kathy Jacobs, the fifth-grade team leader at Laurel Woods.
"This is really the right time to begin the [drug abuse resistance] program that will continue all through middle school and high school. . . . Hopefully they get the right message."