During a midday break yesterday, 3-year-old Heriberto Arevalo and Nancy Perez, 4, sat cross-legged on the floor of their new classroom at Columbia's Running Brook Elementary School, giggling and whispering to one another in Spanish.
Later, with guidance from their teachers, they struggled through English-language songs and practiced words for body parts -- in English and Spanish.
The lessons come as part of new preschool classes offered in some Howard County public schools this year to give immigrant and low-income children a boost, socially and academically, before they start kindergarten.
The classes, which are free, are held in school districts that include neighborhoods where the economic need is greatest, said Sue Webster, the school administrator overseeing the program.
Running Brook, which ran a pilot preschool program last year and also serves students from Swansfield Elementary, is in its third week of classes. Laurel Woods Elementary started Monday, Talbott Springs yesterday and Phelps Luck will start Wednesday.
"I feel this helps students a lot, a lot," said Brenda Orellana, an instructor's assistant at Running Brook in Wilde Lake village.
"Last year, we saw a student who was so shy and would barely speak at the beginning of the year, even in Spanish. By the end, she was raising her hand and talking in English. Compared to other students in her kindergarten class this year, she is doing so great."
Said Webster: "We really want our children to be fluent readers by the time they are in first grade. At the pre-K level, that means you need to start looking at the basic literacy skills needed before you can learn. We want to provide any early intervention we can."
By all accounts, the need for such intervention in Howard is rising.
In the 1990s, students from low-income families have increased by almost 75 percent, and the percentage of children with limited English proficiency has doubled, school officials say.
About one in 10 Howard students qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches -- the federal standard for low-income families, according to Rae Ellen Levene, the county's Title I coordinator.
Struggles for students
Such demographic changes affect the classroom. A higher percentage of county children struggle with beginning reading, test scores lag in schools in the county's lower-income areas and, perhaps most disturbing to many, fights and suspensions are increasing three times faster than the overall growth in the school system's enrollment.
But children who get early lessons on classroom behavior and methods of learning -- and whose parents get involved in their educations -- often are able to circumvent such problems, school officials say.
"If we can develop positive relationships with parents early, that will pay off down the pike," Webster said.
Some parents of children enrolled in the classes -- which run for about three hours each day -- are already seeing benefits.
"I can tell by his attitude and the way he's acting that he's already changed after only three days," said Nimisha Patel, whose 3-year-old son, Kaaran, is enrolled at Laurel Woods. "He's starting to talk more and he comes down in the morning with his backpack to get his cereal."
New displays of independence are common among many preschoolers, teachers said. But students such as Kaaran who struggle with English -- his parents, who are from India, speak Guratiji at home -- often cannot understand basic classroom instruction.
Getting head start
Howard County schools have also gotten used to getting students in kindergarten from relatively affluent families that could afford to send their children to preschool programs. With more families now facing financial strains, that is no longer always the case.
"We have a lot of students in our school who otherwise would not have access to a preschool program," said Debbie Drown, principal of Running Brook. "This is really important."
One 3-year-old at Laurel Woods yesterday ate breakfast at school because her family's low-income status qualified her for the free meal program. One parent said her child would not be in school at all if not for the program because the family is saving to buy a house.
Diane White -- who works part-time and goes to school -- said her daughter, India, would likely be home with a baby-sitter if not for her new class at Laurel Woods.
Instead, India is learning to get along with her young classmates and to follow the instruction of her teacher, Garrett Bradley.
For most students, the toughest aspects of preschool are not language barriers or economic challenges, but more traditional problems: sitting still, following instructions and paying attention.
Yesterday, Destiny Newman, a restless 3-year-old at Laurel Woods, had trouble sitting cross-legged on the floor of her classroom during reading time. She fidgeted and wiggled, got up and eventually laid down on the floor to stare at the ceiling.
"Destiny," Bradley said, "please sit up. You're in school now, and it's time to pay attention. No naps in pre-K."
Space is still available in all the pre-K classes, but students must live in the school district where the classes are offered. Call 410-313-6680 for information.
Pub Date: 9/18/97