Call it kindergarten prep.
That's the mission of Howard County's newly expanded seven-week summer Head Start session - to sharpen the skills of 144 4- and 5-year-olds who attended Head Start during the just-ended academic year and who are to begin kindergarten next month.
"There's enough studies out there to show that children not academically stimulated over the summer lose a lot of that information. The goal of Head Start is to prepare children for kindergarten," said Jena Smith, the county's Head Start director.
In addition to teaching children their colors and letters, Head Start is helping the children to be ready socially, too, said education coordinator Amy Haflett. "Language and literacy, sharing, social and emotional rules, and following directions" are the keys to readiness, she said.
At the county-built Dasher Green Head Start Center in Columbia recently, one of three locations in the county, Marwa Ibrahim, 21, a fitness coach from Jump Bunch, a private firm, led each of four classes in physical exercises, one of the new programs added this year.
"It's just a way to teach the fundamentals of sports and fitness in fun ways," said Ibrahim, a University of Maryland, College Park student who hopes one day to teach children who have been abused.
Ace Bradley, Christine Brierre, Lawrence Asiedu, Timothy Velez, Beverly Leon, Ericka Happy, Sika Alle, Shania Swartz. DeAndre Ferguson, Emily Fluente and Maria Shanchez, all 5 years old, loved doing a tug of war with a long rope, as well as jumping, skipping and hopping. At the end of the session, each child got a temporary tattoo of a milkshake on each hand.
The tug of war was used to teach teamwork, Ibrahim said.
"You guys can't do this by yourselves. You need your teammates to help you," Ibrahim told the children. Teacher Mary Valmas and her assistant, Ladawn Jackson, also participated.
"I like this game. I'm going to do this at my house," Beverly said about the tug of war.
Christine was the only one who was able, with the rope laid on the floor, to jump down its length while alternately criss-crossing her legs.
She liked doing that, she said, "because it was hard."
From the winter complement of 264 Head Start children, Smith said priority for the summer program goes to the older children who are due to enter kindergarten next month.
The summer program has expanded in several ways over the years, Smith said, after starting with 36 children in 2001. This year, the program grew from six to seven weeks, and new features were added to bolster education in the arts, physical fitness and to provide more field trips.
A longer six-hour day, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., compared with four-hour sessions during the winter, also helps, Smith said. The program began June 9 and runs through July 24 and provides transportation, breakfast and lunch. The other summer school location is in Ellicott City, while Head Start operates a year-round program for 36 children in the former Harriet Tubman High School, next to Atholton High in Columbia.
The changes seem to be helping, according to results from school-readiness tests given to incoming kindergarten students in county schools.
"We have seen a steady increase each year in our kindergarten students whose parents reported Head Start as their predominant prior care," said Lisa Davis, the school system's instructional facilitator for early childhood programs.
Smith said the tests showed a 10 percent gain in readiness for Head Start students who began kindergarten in August last year.
"We're really seeing a huge success," Smith said. In 2003-2004, 34 percent of Head Start children were kindergarten-ready. In the school year just ended, 61 percent were ready, she said.
Smith said she would like to expand the program, but attracting more donors can be challenging. Head Start's summer program costs $149,000. About half of that, or $73,000, comes from the state, with another $30,000 from Howard County social services. The rest comes from private donations from the Ellicott City Rotary Club, the Erickson and Horizon foundations and the county bar association, which helps with technology and software.