By Elizabeth Heubeck
Kindergarten programs throughout Maryland can vary greatly. If you are the parent of a child about to enter kindergarten, take time to evaluate whether the program you’re signing up for suits his or her level of school readiness.
As a child, Baltimore City resident Ericka Howard loved school. And, as a parent, she had no reason to believe her daughter Andrea would feel any differently when she enrolled her in the local public kindergarten last year.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
Howard fondly recalled playing with blocks and playing dress-up in kindergarten.
Andrea and her classmates were required to do seated work for 30 minutes a day. Worksheets, when completed inaccurately, received big Xs splattered across them.
Also, in Andrea’s kindergarten, “center time,” during which students were free to choose their own activities, was limited to 20 minutes a day. By the time the children chose a spot and settled in, it was almost time to clean up, says Howard.
Now, she adds, sounding defeated, her 6-year-old says she hates school.
“I feel like, had she not been reading by the end of kindergarten, but still liked school, she would be better off,” laments Howard. “But I can’t take it back and do it over for her.”
It’s certainly true that not all kindergartens are the same and that not all parents report experiences as distressing as Howard’s. Indeed, some parents are even thrilled at the academic rigor being introduced to their 5-year-olds.
However, questions linger about the relatively recent trend toward full-day, academically oriented kindergartens, among them: Are children ready for it? How can they get ready for it? And, how do their parents know when they’re ready for it?
The Big Shift
As many educational experts have been saying, kindergarten is the new first grade.
“When I started teaching kindergarten 10 years ago, the big shift in curriculum was occurring,” says Kimberly Oliver Burnim, a first-grade teacher at Broad Acres Elementary School, in Silver Spring, who was named National Teacher of the Year in 1996. “Research had showed that young kids were capable of doing so much more. That pushed the bar, bringing with it added expectations.”
And many kindergarteners may, in fact, be very capable of reaching that bar.
In the 2008-09 Maryland School Readiness Report, prepared by the Maryland State Department of Education, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick acknowledges that “as more research is done on how and when children learn, we are finding that children begin learning well before kindergarten,” and, thus, supports providing children “strong early care and learning opportunities, beginning at birth.”
Grasmick also points out that “73 percent of the entering kindergarten students were evaluated by their teachers as ‘fully’ ready for kindergarten,” a 5 percent increase from the previous year and a 24 percent increase from 2001-02, an fact which she attributes, along with other such improvements, “to the hard work of the early childhood community to improve the early learning opportunities for all our children.”
But not everyone supports the idea of a more rigorous kindergarten curriculum.
The Alliance for Childhood, a Maryland-based nonprofit, raises some doubts about the increased emphasis on academics in kindergarten in its 2009 report “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.”
According to the report, research indicates that children in all-day kindergarten typically spend up to six times longer in literacy and math instruction and taking or preparing for tests than they do in free play or “choice time.”
“Kindergartners are now under great pressure to meet inappropriate expectations, including academic standards that, until recently, were reserved for first grade,” the report states in its summary.
It goes on to say that denying kindergartners adequate playtime may be contributing to an increase in aggression and even severe behavior problems in the classroom.
While opinions regarding kindergarten curriculum vary, most parents and experts agree that today’s kindergarteners are, at least, more prepared for a longer day than their parents were at that age. Maryland required all its public kindergartens to be full-day beginning in the 2007-08 school year, a trend that’s spreading nationally.
“Back in the day, children were home,” says Jan Olsen, a Bethesda-based educational consultant and creator of Handwriting Without Tears, the handwriting curriculum used throughout many of Maryland’s public school systems. “Now they’re going all the time. Many are in full-day daycare.”
Prep for Kindergarten
Although Olsen does not disagree with the longer kindergarten day, she feels strongly about how children should learn concepts in preschool to prepare them for that next step.
“They need to be physically moving, engaged in activities and music,” she says. “It shouldn’t be about hammering the information into them.
“Worksheets in pre-k—that’s bad. It should be playful and joyful.”
Heather Andrews, education director at the Goddard School, in Columbia, assures parents that the expectations of beginning kindergarteners at her school are fairly basic.
“They should be able to write their own name and start to recognize letters and numbers,” she says.
But even if a child does not have strong letter and number recognition, Andrews encourages his or her parents not to despair.
“As long as they can sit and listen, the rest will come,” she says.
Ready, or Not?
But many parents wonder: Are their children even ready to sit and listen?
Baltimore resident Stephannie Weikert and her husband started batting around that question a year before their daughter was slated to start kindergarten. With her birthday falling on the day before the enrollment cutoff of Sept. 1, she would be entering kindergarten, potentially, as one of the youngest children in her class.
Initially, Weikert considered her own school experience when weighing the decision of whether to hold her daughter back a year.
“My birthday is at the end of July,” she says. “Looking back, had I been more mature in school, maybe I would have been a better student and done better in school.”
Her husband, who has a September birthday, repeated kindergarten after struggling through the first go-round but eventually excelled in school.
Ultimately, the Weikerts based their decision on their daughter’s own signs of readiness.
“It became fairly evident around the holidays, halfway through pre-kindergarten, that Maya was having some developmental leaps,” Weikert says. “She was sitting down and writing letters, asking me what letters sounded like. For me, that was a sign that she’s clearly showing a strong desire to move on.”
That was last year. This year, Maya is a happy and well-adjusted kindergartner at the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, in Baltimore City.
“When I pick her up, she’s excited to tell me what she learned that day,” says Weikert.
Save the Date
Like the Weikerts, many area parents, especially those whose children’s birthdays fall close to the new cutoff date, routinely debate whether to send their children to kindergarten or to wait an extra year.
Melissa Baker, of Towson, has already decided to have her 3-year-old son repeat the 3-year-old class in preschool next year. He has a late birthday, and she has noticed that he’s not interacting socially the way most kids in his class are, nor is he potty-trained.
“I’d rather him be the oldest than the youngest in his class,” she says.
So, as parents continue to debate their children’s kindergarten readiness, Andrews, of the Goddard School, cautions them with this reminder: “It’s a journey. It’s not where they are now; it’s where they are 10 years from now.” BC
School Readiness, As Defined by the State
The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) defines school readiness as “a stage of human development at which children are prepared to engage in, and benefit from, early learning experiences.”
According to MSDE, children who have reached this preparedness will be:
•socially adjusted, emotionally secure, physically strong, and coordinated;
•able to communicate with adults and other children;
•aware of print- and letter-sound relationships;
•able to understand stories and have a love for books;
•able to recognize and understand basic math concepts, including patterns and shapes and how to put them in a certain order;
•aware of their environment and the roles of the people in their families and their communities; and
•comfortable with expressing themselves creatively, through the arts.
Read the entire 2008-09 Maryland School Readiness Report online, at www.MdSchoolReadiness.org.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. March 2010