'Kid-friendly pace' for the long hours


"Wake up, sleepyhead," Cassidy Caldwell gently pleads as she swirls her mouse around to coax an idle computer to life.

Then, one keystroke at a time, Cassidy, 5, a kindergartner at Robert Moton Elementary in Westminster, carefully types in her 12-character user name to log on to the school's computer system.

She searches the desktop for the icon that will lead her to the software program she needs. Navigating a series of drop-down menus, she settles on one of several educational games that teachers throughout the county have customized to match lesson plans.

Cassidy's ease with computers has grown through the two half-hour sessions each week that her class spends in the school's computer lab. Her teacher, Gina Hicks, said it's an experience she is able to provide her pupils only because they attend full-day kindergarten.

As Carroll County prepares to introduce full-day kindergarten at more schools this fall, Robert Moton's program provides a snapshot of what parents and children can expect. Teachers at the school laud the program, saying it gives them more time with their pupils.

"It's exactly the same kindergarten benchmarks that children have in the half-day program, but the bonus is I see them for the full day, and we are able to teach at a kid-friendly pace throughout the day," said Hicks, who has taught at the school for two years. "Having taught half-day, we [met] all the benchmarks, but it's fast-paced."

State education officials have required all-day kindergarten by the 2007-2008 school year as part of the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission education reforms - also known as the Bridge to Excellence Act.

Carroll County is implementing its full-day kindergarten program in three phases.

All-day kindergarten is being introduced first at schools that do not require the construction of additional classrooms. It will be offered this fall at Charles Carroll, Cranberry Station, Elmer A. Wolfe, Parr's Ridge, Robert Moton, Taneytown, William Winchester and Winfield elementaries.

For the 2006-2007 school year, it will be added at Spring Garden, Piney Ridge, Westminster, Linton Springs, Eldersburg and Friendship Valley elementaries.

By 2007-2008, Hampstead, Manchester, Mechanicsville, Runnymede, Freedom District, Sandymount and Carrolltowne elementaries will have it.

Robert Moton has had at least one full-day kindergarten class for the past three years, making it one of the district's oldest kindergarten programs.

Bristling at critics who characterize all-day kindergarten as "glorified day care," teachers and the school's principal point to strides they have seen in pupils.

Robert Moton's full-day kindergarten classes have been limited to children whose assessments indicated they needed more instruction to prepare for first grade. As the end of the school year neared, teachers found those pupils were performing on par or, in some cases, exceeding the academic progress of those who had started the year ahead in the assessments.

"It has leveled the playing field," said Cynthia Taylor, the school's principal. "It has helped them catch up."

Hicks, who taught half-day kindergarten last year, acknowledges that initially she wasn't excited about full-day kindergarten.

"But seeing how having the children for the full day can impact their learning" changed her mind within a week of starting school last fall, she said. "What I'm able to do is nurture their learning from the beginning of the day to the end of the day."

While school officials will launch a new all-day kindergarten curriculum this fall, most of the school day will remain the same, said Anna Varakin, the district's supervisor of elementary education.

When children arrive in the morning - classes begin at 8:40 a.m. at Robert Moton - they have opening activities, such as reviewing the previous day and discussing their agenda for the day. Then they have 90 minutes of reading and writing and an hour of math (in large- and small-group settings), and a 30-minute lunch break.

All-day kindergartners have 30 minutes of physical education three times a week. On those days, they also have one 15-minute recess period. The other two days, the children take two 15-minute recesses.

"The breaks are so important," Taylor said. "Their attention span is really good for 10 or 15 minutes."

Teachers keep the children on task by frequently rotating activities and using transition exercises, such as singing or stretching.

About midday, pupils spend about 20 minutes in "shared reading," when children relax and listen to the teacher telling a story. Although the children do not have a scheduled nap time, some may drift off during shared reading, Varakin said.

Then comes 30 minutes of science or social studies each day and 30 minutes of "stations," where pupils work independently on reading, writing, math, science or social studies.

Though the schedule varies from day to day, each week the children have two 30-minute sessions of art and music; two 30-minute sessions in the library; and 30 minutes of health. Schools with a computer lab can work that into the activities as well.

At the end of the school day - 3:05 p.m. for Robert Moton pupils - children spend about 15 minutes winding down. They reflect on the day with their teacher and talk about the next day's activities.

"What we want to remember is that they are 5 years old," Varakin said. "We know 5-year-olds learn best through play. But it's not a free-for-all. We're going to structure the activities so the children are very engaged, with their hands and their minds."

All-day kindergarten

All-day kindergarten is being introduced first at schools that do not require the construction of additional classrooms.

It will be offered at the following schools this fall:

Charles Carroll in Westminster

Cranberry Station in Westminster

Elmer A. Wolfe in Union Bridge

Parr's Ridge in Mount Airy

Robert Moton in Westminster

Taneytown Elementary

William Winchester in Westminster

Winfield in Westminster

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