Dear Homeroom:

As the parent of two children in Montgomery County public schools, I am absolutely appalled by the Board of Education's recent vote to intensify academic instruction in kindergarten.

First, let me say that I applaud Superintendent Jerry Weast's determination to close the gap between academic achievements of African American and Hispanic students and their white and Asian classmates. And I am very pleased that he and the board want to lower average class sizes in the early grades.

However, apart from lowering class size, I believe that the approach the board is taking to achieve that goal is completely misguided, not to mention very, very disturbing. What on Earth makes the board think that pushing intense academics onto kindergarten children, taking away their naps and their enrichment activities, is going to close the racial gap?

These are very young children, some of whom are only 4 years old at the beginning of the year! What are they thinking?

Lorraine P. Coffey

Silver Spring

What we have here, quite obviously, is a failure to communicate. You would think a school system--which, after all, is supposed to be dedicated to clear communication of facts and ideas--would be able to start a conversation without starting a riot. But that appears to be wishful thinking.

First off, let's talk about what kindergarten is, currently, in Montgomery County. In nine schools, it is a full-day program, meaning that it is six hours a day, with lunch and recess. But nap time hasn't been part of the curriculum for years. Kindergarten is much more academic than parents remember their own kindergarten experience, with lots of time spent on literacy skills, math and science.

At least, however, the full-day program still has time for some creative play with music, art and building materials and for building strong relationships among the kids and between the kids and the teacher. The "specials"--art, music, physical education and sometimes computer classes--are 40 minutes out of most school days, plus the time to get to and from those classes. But because that is not a huge percentage of the school day, no one thinks much about it.

However, in most schools in Montgomery County, kindergarten is only a half-day program with the same curriculum as the full-day program, meaning that just about all the free play and creative play is squeezed out. In other words, kindergarten may not be what you think it is.

Frankly, it is very difficult to have a meaningful kindergarten program in just 2 1/2 hours a day. But if that's all the time you have, the use of that time needs to be planned very carefully. One question that needs to be asked is whether 10 to 20 minutes a day should be spent gathering the kids into lines and walking over to the art or music room, which, in many schools, involves putting on coats and walking to the portable classroom in the back. It might be more efficient and better for the kids to have the art or music teacher come to them.

These and other issues prompted Weast to ask the school board to allow him to redesign the kindergarten curriculum. Unfortunately, the memo he signed on the subject appeared to propose that art be eliminated from the schedule. That, understandably, got art teachers, music teachers, kindergarten teachers and many parents in a righteous tizzy and caused Weast, his deputy and his communications director to have to issue statement after statement that there are no plans to eliminate art or music in kindergarten.

All that frenzy unfortunately slowed down the serious discussion that should be held, focused on the following question: What experiences do all children need early in childhood to help them learn and achieve at high levels?

Research on the development of the brain and on teaching and learning is still embryonic, but much of it appears to be coming to the same conclusion: Babies and young children learn the most when they have strong personal relationships with consistent caregivers who provide a wide variety of experiences, such as singing, painting, dancing, building, playing with a wide variety of materials and reading aloud, all while holding conversations using the rich and complex vocabulary that naturally flows from these experiences. In addition, very young children can begin building phonemic awareness and counting skills that lead to skillful reading and the beginning of a deep understanding of mathematics.

These are the kinds of things a good kindergarten program should be built around. Knowing that, it is reasonable to ask whether we are in fact providing that and whether there are some things that we should be doing differently--particularly for those children whose early childhood was less rich in experience than others. So I'm glad Weast is looking at all this, and can only hope his shoot-first-aim-later routine will give way to a more thoughtful discussion.

It would be wonderful, for example, if he brought the county's best kindergarten, art, music and physical education teachers together with the country's top researchers on early childhood learning so they could systematically figure out how to ensure that all children learn at high levels. Then we would know that Montgomery County was really taking seriously its rhetoric about being world class.

Magnet Schools

Dear Homeroom:

As a former student in Montgomery County's Productive Thinking Program in elementary school, the Communications Arts Magnet in middle school and the International Baccalaureate Program in high school--all of which required me to be bused out of my home schools--I would like to add my views to the recent discussion about magnet programs.

Magnet programs do not produce true integration, as many people have noted. They produce statistical integration. Magnet students do not interact with their "regular school" counterparts in any significant way.

Mostly, there is snobbishness from the magnet students towards the rest of the school (and often, the areas the magnet students are bused into) and resentment on the part of the "regular school" students.

If their purpose is racial integration, magnet programs are a failure and a sham. If anything, magnet programs breed racism; Blair is referred to by its magnet students as a "ghetto" school simply because it lies in a minority-majority area of the county.

However, the fact that magnet programs do not cure the disease which was the reason for their creation is no reason to eliminate them entirely. No magnet program is without its problems, which in some cases go far beyond the lack of interaction between magnet and non-magnet students. I dealt with their problems on a day-to-day level, and sometimes the programs were very frustrating to contend with.

But if I had it all to do over again, I would still have entered the programs that I did.

I hate to say this, because I wish it weren't true, but I disengage from classes which go slowly. If there are a lot of students who don't particularly want to learn in a class, and they display this preference in disruptive ways, I tend not to take that class seriously. If I am reading works which do not challenge me, solving math problems which do not stretch my capability, or completing assignments which pose me little or no difficulty, I will tune a class out. Because of this, I don't get all the educational value I could from a class. I know, too, that I am not alone in this tendency.

When I was in magnet classes, I knew that my teachers would assign me challenging topics and ideas; that my teachers would (for the most part) be committed to aiding my exploration of the subject; that I would have adequate resources with which to explore; and that my fellow students would, in the main, be as committed to learning as I was. My academic talent was not resented, but respected. My off-topic explorations were not discouraged as time-wasting diversions, but encouraged. A lot was expected of me, and I was able to meet expectations.

If it were up to me, I'd raise taxes and make sure the entire county received the education I did. Overall, it enriched me greatly. I wish that magnet programs could be expanded, and I wish the county's school system in general challenged its students more.

There are a lot of people out there who could function at quite a high level if they were asked and encouraged to. But as long as we must work with limited resources, I think that we need to recognize that those students who are functioning at a very high level have needs and desires which are just as important as those of students who are functioning at a low level. Let's work with everyone to improve academic achievement, but let's not forget to work with the high-functioning students who don't seem to "need" it.

Andrew Lindemann Malone

Silver Spring

You've packed a big wallop into your letter. Any responses?

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