In a corner of her room at Manor View Elementary on Fort Meade, kindergarten teacher Laura Hobbs neatly arranged a little kitchen set, dolls, a small bed and play-food. She likes watching her students pretend, but she worries they'll be strapped for play time given the long list of academic requirements for the school year that begins this week.
She has only nine months to get her 5- and 6-year-olds to identify the sequential property of numbers using the calendar, learn the alphabet, recognize letter sounds, learn how to sort by color and number, and learn to share and play nice with one another.
The long list of expectations accompanies a transition this year by Manor View and other Maryland schools to a more academically rigorous, full-day kindergarten program, as required by state law. Under the terms of a landmark education reform bill enacted in 2002, every public school system must provide full-day instruction for kindergartners beginning this year.
Maryland was one of the first states to require the longer days for its youngsters, giving its schools five years to phase in the extended-day program. Advocates say a longer kindergarten day improves literacy and narrows the achievement gaps between minorities and low-income students and their peers. They point to evidence of success, such as Baltimore, where test scores for first- and second-graders have risen since full-day kindergarten was introduced in 215 schools in 2001.
But the initiative has been costly and has sparked criticism.
School systems have struggled to find space and money for additional teachers and classrooms as the school day grew from two-and-a-half hours to six. In some cases, officials used music rooms, art rooms and computer labs for kindergarten, displacing teachers. Others are teaching in makeshift classrooms, such as auditorium stages. Alex Szachnowicz, the district's director of facilities, said that in Anne Arundel County, some older students will be taught in portable classrooms - part of a facilities expansion to accommodate the kindergartners that cost the county schools $26 million.
All-day kindergarten has also come under fire from some researchers who warn that when a regimented kindergarten curriculum squeezes out imaginative play, learning and knowledge retention are stunted.
"Kindergarten has become the new first grade. We're so afraid that if we don't shove facts in, the children will fall forever behind, [and] schools have whipped themselves into an academic frenzy to push students to learn faster and earlier," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University psychology professor and author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards.
Her work highlights a philosophical split between those who say the best learning occurs when a child explores concepts through play, and policymakers who push for a structured approach with more testing to see who is and isn't learning.
Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says 5- and 6-year-olds can handle longer days and need them to be successful later.
A staunch advocate of full-day kindergarten, she cites research showing that longer school days give teachers more time to spend on reading, math and social concepts, and more individualized learning.
"The research is abundant that children who have an early beginning, one that has a lot of depth to it, will have a much better opportunity for school success," Grasmick said.
"We believe children today are ready for it," she added. "The vast majority of our children entering kindergarten have been in structured pre-K, so they are used to that kind of setting."
The focus on lessons is part of a national move, bolstered by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, to increase test scores and accountability.
Manor View Principal Anita Dempsey says kindergartners at her school face a battery of formal and informal tests to determine their strengths and weaknesses, are grouped according to their needs and then receive "laser-like instruction."
In other districts, including Harford County, such instruction, along with six hours of class, has accelerated learning. What's taught in first and second grade is changing because students are learning concepts sooner. Some kindergartners in Harford are learning to count to as high as 120, instead of 25.
"Kindergarten isn't where you come and play any more. It's where you get students ready to read," said Dempsey.
This worries some child development experts who say it doesn't leave enough room for make-believe play that helps children grasp critical social and language concepts.
"Not all children develop at the same rate or pace, so ... some children learn to read at 5, and others don't learn until they're 7," said Ed Miller, co-director of programs at the Alliance for Childhood, a College Park-based advocacy group.
"The harm comes in expecting every child to do these things earlier. Putting that kind of pressure and creating that kind of anxiety makes the ones that don't catch on for perfectly natural reasons get the idea that something's wrong with them, and they start to think of reading as unpleasant and a chore," Miller said.
Nationally, the percentage of children enrolled in full-day kindergarten has been on the upswing, from about 25 percent in 1984 to more than 60 percent in 2001, according to the latest figures available from the Education Commission of the States, a national think tank that follows education policy. Maryland is among nine states that require full-day kindergarten, though scores of districts in other states also offer full-day programs, regardless of state law, to meet the demands of parents and federal laws like No Child Left Behind.
That law, championed and signed into law by President Bush in 2001, gives schools until 2014 to have every child in every school proficient in every subject.
In Maryland, the 2002 Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act required all of the state's 24 school systems to implement full-day kindergarten by this fall.
But the rollout cost districts millions of dollars.
Running Brook Elementary in Columbia was one of the first Howard County schools to implement full-day kindergarten four years ago. The move was met with mixed emotions from parents, Principal Lisa Booth said.
"We worked with parents to ease the fears of their children eating lunch independently ... things that they didn't have to worry about in the past," she said.
Schools soon learned they had larger issues to iron out - like finding enough money and space to accommodate the additional teachers and students.
School district officials said that implementing the all-day kindergarten program cost about $19 million for Howard County schools, more than $30 million for Carroll County and $5 million for Harford County. In addition to the $26 million in building costs, Anne Arundel has budgeted $13.3 million for teacher and staff salaries and benefits.
"Our educators are really supportive of kindergarten, and they realize it will pay real dividends in the long-term development of students, yet it came at a real price on the facilities side," said Szachnowicz, the director of facilities.
At an open house last week in Ellicott City, parents of children who will attend Ilchester Elementary's all-day kindergarten expressed support for the idea, and confidence their children would adapt.
"He's really nervous about homework," Janice Kalinock said of her 5-year-old, Jason. "I'm confident he is very well prepared. I feel that he is ready."
Attending school for a full day, like the older students at Ilchester, will make kindergartners "feel like a more important part of school," she said.
There is an extra benefit for her. Having Jason in school all day permits Kalinock to resume working as a preschool teacher elsewhere in the building.
Deborah Adams, a kindergarten teacher at Ilchester, predicts that concerns about a loss of play time will prove unfounded. After years of squeezing lessons into a half-day schedule, she will now be able to stretch the learning out more, and intersperse it with recess, quiet time and other breaks in the day.
She even added a table-top sandbox to her classroom.
"I'm focused on bringing a more social aspect back into the classroom," she said.
Sun reporters Arin Gencer and Madison Park contributed to this article.
Education issues for Maryland schools
Classes resume tomorrow for most of the state's 850,000 students, including all of those in the Baltimore area. Prince George's County opened last week. Only Worcester County on the Eastern Shore is set to begin classes after Labor Day. Here are issues to watch as the new school year gets under way:
High school assessments
This year's high school juniors may be the first students in the state to have to pass four year-end exams in algebra, American government, biology and English to earn a high school diploma. State education officials will make a final decision after the results of last academic year's tests are released this week.
Nine new charter schools are opening in Maryland this fall, six of them in Baltimore City. In the four years after the passage of a state law allowing charter schools to open, charters have grown rapidly and now enroll 7,000 children. There are 30 of these independently operated public schools statewide, with more than 20 in the city. Other schools have opened in Frederick, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties.
Some schools will open this week with teacher vacancies. As of last week, schools still needed to hire 900 teachers and other classroom staff, but that was a small portion of the 7,000 new staff hired this summer. Across the state, public schools employ 80,000 teachers and instructional staff.
Keeping track of students
No parent will know it, but every student in the state will be assigned a number on Sept. 30 as a way to track his or her progress through the schools. The "unique student identifier" will allow the state to get a clear picture of the drop-out and graduation rates of high schools, as well as track student achievement in a school over a period of years.