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In Kindergarten Playtime, a New Meaning for ‘Play’

Ohanian Comment:This account of a kindergarten run on the new view of 21st century skills is heartbreaking. When a teacher admits that what she is doing is not what she'd want for her own child, then what she's doing can't be defended.

Achievement First is a non-profit charter school management organization started in July 2003 by the leaders of Amistad Academy, a high-performing charter school in New Haven, CT. We aim to bring to scale a system of charter schools in New York and Connecticut.

Here are their instructional strategies, which are scary and demeaning. Rote repetition and chants as skills for the 21st century. Rote repetition and chants done in the name of reducing the achievement gap.

Achievement First gets money from New Schools Venture Fund, which claims to have the vision for 21st century skills for all children. Here are the ventures into which they put their investments:

* Achievement First
* Alliance for College Ready Public Schools
* Aspire Public Schools
* Carnegie Learning
* Civic Builders
* EdBuild
* Education for Change
* Friendship Public Charter Schools
* GreatSchools
* Green Dot Public Schools
* High Tech High Learning
* Inner City Education Foundation
* Leadership Public Schools
* LearnNow (acquired in 2001)
* Lighthouse Academies
* Mastery Charter High School
* New Leaders for New Schools
* Noble Network of Charter Schools
* Pacific Charter School Development
* Partnerships to Uplift Communities
* Success for All
* Teach for America
* Teachscape
* Uncommon Schools

You can find out more about their partners.

By Clara Hemphill

THE word “kindergarten” means “children’s garden,” and for years has conjured up an image of children playing with blocks, splashing at water tables, dressing up in costumes or playing house. Now, with an increased emphasis on academic achievement even in the earliest grades, playtime in kindergarten is giving way to worksheets, math drills and fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests.

Nowhere are the demands greater than at Achievement First East New York Charter School in Brooklyn, which holds classes through this month. On a recent Friday morning, 20 kindergartners in uniforms of yellow shirts and blue jumpers or shorts, many yawning and rubbing their eyes, filed into the classroom of Keisha Rattray and Luis Gonzalez. Some sat in plastic chairs lined up before the teachers for phonics and grammar drills, while others sat at computer screens, listening through headphones to similar exercises.

The classroom has no blocks, dress-up corners or play kitchens. There is no time for show and tell, naps or recess. There is homework every night. For much of the day, the children are asked to sit quietly with their hands folded as their teachers drill them in phonics, punctuation and arithmetic.

“At the beginning of the year, they’re dropping like flies, falling asleep by 12 o’clock,” said Mrs. Rattray, 27. “We say, ‘Wake up, you are in big school now.’ ”

Achievement First, part of a network of charter schools, is an extreme case, but across the nation, there is less time for play even for the youngest students. And while it may seem like a good thing to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as early as possible, most early childhood experts agree that play is crucial for both social and academic development.

Constructive play helps children develop social skills while laying an important foundation for reading and math, said Dominic F. Gullo, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Queens College.

For example, he explained, children who set up a pretend post office or a restaurant in what is called a “dramatic play area” learn how to take turns, how to speak clearly to one another, and how to make up their own stories — stories that are the foundation for writing.

Playing with blocks teaches children the basics of math as they learn that two small blocks put together have the same length as one long block.

Children who never learn to play with one another — who rely on grown-ups to resolve disputes — never learn the self-regulation and teamwork for their adulthood.

Professor Gullo said the trend toward more academics in kindergarten cut across urban, suburban and rural areas and across social classes.

“For this age, play is work,” said Carmen Fariña, who retired this month as a deputy schools chancellor for the New York City Department of Education, and who has been a teacher and principal as well.

David Cantor, the department spokesman, said the agency wanted kindergartens to have play areas and to emphasize the importance of play.

But teachers say the message that play matters does not reach the classroom.

“The play kitchen, I had to remove it to make space for the math station and the reading station,” said Patricia Wilson, a kindergarten teacher at Public School 28 in the Tremont section of the Bronx. “The dress-up area, I miss it. If a child is timid, playing in the dress-up area helps him make friends.”

Milagros Perez, a kindergarten teacher in the same school, agreed. “They do need to socialize and learn to share,” she said of the children. “They need that interaction with their peers. That has been lost. There is a lot of fighting now.”

The pressure to make kindergarten more academic can be especially intense in poorer neighborhoods. Schools there, struggling to meet the demands of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, are ratcheting up academic expectations.

“Our real mission is closing the achievement gap,” said Diahann Billings-Burford, director of external relations for Achievement First in New York.

At Achievement First, classes run from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the school year, with gym, music and dance in the afternoon; in July, the school day goes from 7:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. with only academic classes.

ON the recent morning, the children in Mrs. Rattray’s and Mr. Gonzalez’s classroom read aloud from a story about a girl named Ann who brought her dog, Dan, to school. Then they filled out worksheets with questions like “Where did Dan go?” and “Who is Ann?”

One girl, slumped in her chair, twisted the hem of her skirt. A boy rocked in his chair. Another boy sucked his thumb and, with his other hand, wrote the answers on the worksheet on a clipboard.

Mrs. Rattray said that ideally, every child would have time to play with blocks and a dress-up corner. But we do not live in an ideal world, she added, and the order and structure of Achievement First is a big improvement over the chaos of many urban schools. The children are reading, a big accomplishment.

“Achievement First gives them a solid foundation,” she said.

But even as she took pride in her students’ progress, Mrs. Rattray betrayed ambivalence about the method. “If it were my own child,” she said, “I would want more time for play.”

Clara Hemphill is the director of
Insideschools.org, a project of Advocates for Children of New York.

— Clara Hemphill
New York Times




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