A panel of state legislators urged Southern Maryland school systems to consider using private day-care providers to help ease the burden of fulfilling the state mandate to provide all-day kindergarten to students by 2008.

During a public hearing Tuesday at William B. Wade Elementary School in Waldorf, members of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families discussed the issue of all-day kindergarten, a component of the Bridge to Excellence program, known as the Thornton plan, that is intended to improve student performance over several years.

Much of the hearing was dedicated to the role that private day-care providers could play in helping public schools find the space and teaching resources to improve education for their youngest students.

"Have you looked at the curriculum [private day-care centers] are providing to see if it meets your needs?" Del. Gail H. Bates (R-Howard) asked Charles County school officials. "If there are existing [private] programs . . . maybe you could work with them to meet those needs."

Sen. P.J. Hogan (D-Montgomery) said he did not support a piece of legislation proposed during this year's session of the General Assembly that would have mandated that a certain percentage of public school kindergarten needs would be contracted out to private providers. However, he said encouraging cooperation between public schools and private entities is a good thing. He said private day-care providers' educational standards are improving in many places.

"As their standards are coming up, superintendents may also be more willing to look at [using private day-care centers] as they are crunched for space," Hogan said.

Charles County School Superintendent James E. Richmond said he supports the idea of all-day kindergarten because research has shown that students achieve at a higher level in elementary school if they spend more time in the classroom as young children.

"The big problem with it is finding the space," he said after his presentation at Tuesday's hearing.

Nine of Charles County's 19 elementary schools can accommodate all-day kindergarten, Richmond said, and two or three others have asked the county for additional portable classroom trailers. He said the school system has inquired about using space in local churches for kindergarten classes in upcoming years.

Bates also suggested teaching kindergarten classes in churches if a curriculum comparable to that used in the public schools were available.

"Yes, there's a religious component, but as far as the actual preparation for school maybe they're not that different," she said.

Several day-care providers attended the hearing to offer their services to school officials.

Flora Gee, the director of the Greenbelt Children's Center, said that using day-care centers would allow schools to use limited space for other needs and enables parents to have more daily interaction with teachers than in a normal school setting.

"It's really a win-win situation when you contract with day-care providers," she said. "Why aren't we doing this?"