Getting off to a good start


When they were tested last summer, many of the children destined for William Winchester Elementary's all-day kindergarten class in Westminster did not know how to hold a book, what to do with a pencil or how to begin recognizing letters of the alphabet.

But after 90 days of school, most of Suzanne Faughey's kindergartners are achieving at or above levels that Carroll County educators expect before children can advance to first grade. They are beginning to add and subtract, they are starting to read, and all but one of the 17 boys and girls can write their names, including one from the Sudan who did not speak a word of English when he walked into Faughey's classroom Aug. 26.

"The progress they've made is phenomenal," Faughey said, adding that she is confident her pupils would not have learned so much had they been in school for a regular 2 1/2 -hour kindergarten class instead of the six hours that William Winchester's all-day program provides.

With results like these, one might expect that educators, parents and community leaders would welcome a new statewide requirement that every kindergartner in Maryland be enrolled in similar full-day programs by 2007-2008.

But in Carroll County, parents have complained they are not ready to let go of their 5-year-olds for a day, and county and school officials argue that they should not be forced to pay for something that even staunchest advocates say is not necessary for every child.

"No one disagrees that all-day kindergarten can be a good thing," said school board President Susan Holt. "But an underfunded mandate like that tends to rob dollars from other programs. So we put a kid in all-day kindergarten, but what services can we no longer provide through their 12 years of school?"

Even as Carroll school officials discuss curriculum and debate ways to build 40 classrooms needed if nearly 2,000 half-day kindergartners begin staying all day, Carroll's all-Republican legislative delegation is pushing a bill that would exempt the county from the requirement.

"Parents sacrifice to be home with their children so they can rear them the way they want them raised," Del. Carmen Amedori said, warning that full-day kindergarten could become a "baby-sitting service" for families who cannot afford or would rather not pay for day care.

Even teachers and administrators who swear by the success of the limited full-day kindergarten program at William Winchester Elementary are uncertain whether it should be forced on all children.

William Winchester Assistant Principal Chris Sparr said it makes more sense to allow schools to decide which families with children should be in a full-day program. "There are some moms who really want their child to stay home for that half-day," she said. "There are parents who are not ready to let that go yet, and this would be a real leap for them."

For many area school systems, making the transition will be a tremendous leap.

By September 2001, seven of Anne Arundel County's 77 elementary schools offered all-day kindergarten, according to a September 2002 state report. Eighty-five of Baltimore's 109 elementary schools and 51 of Baltimore County's 100 elementary schools had full-day programs.

None of Howard County's 37 elementary schools offers all-day kindergarten -- one of four such jurisdictions in Maryland -- but the system provides extended-day kindergarten for children needing extra help at eight elementary schools with highest concentration of poor pupils.

In Carroll County, school officials offer all-day kindergarten to about 60 of the neediest children divided among three elementary schools with a large population of disadvantaged families -- William Winchester and Robert Moton in Westminster and Taneytown Elementary.

In Faughey's brightly decorated classroom, 17 5-year-olds come tearing in each morning.

"It's 'ready or not, here they come,' and then we hardly sit down for the next seven hours," said Sharon Fischer, an assistant who worked in half-day classes for 10 years before helping to launch the county's first full-day program in 2001.

Even a half-hour of "rest time" in the afternoon is no break. Faughey and Fischer scurry about the room, finishing pupil assessments and directing squirming children to stop whispering, stop playing air guitar, stop scattering beads and put their heads down.

They and a small cadre of school staff lead the children through a structured schedule of reading, writing and math peppered with snacks, outside play and activities such as puppet shows and crafts.

Toward the end of the day, the class gathers for an activity that can best be described as audience-participation story time.

As Faughey works her way through The Bear Snores On, little hands shoot into the air as pupils sound out some words and help Faughey write and draw a synopsis of the book. Then they take turns reading their summaries.

When Dalton Baker reads the five sentences, Faughey's pride is unmistakable. "That was perfect reading," she says. "You're reading like a second-grader, sir. Everyone give Dalton a hand for some really good reading."

Sun staff writers Tricia Bishop and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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