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School camps in St. Louis area aim to give incoming kindergartners a leg up

Ohanian Comment: "Offering kindergartners a leg up to what?" Harvard Business School? Childhood is so short. I don't want five-year-olds I love spending their last summer of freedom being trained walk in a straight, quiet line. There should opposition to this "increasing pressure" for kindergarten skills instead of this rushing to prepare young children how to be submissive.

HAZELWOOD -- In the haze of a summer heat wave, when little minds are often fixed on the jingle of an ice cream truck or days at the pool, kindergarten can seem as alien as blending alphabet sounds together into words that go on paper.

But in an educational system where increasing pressure has been placed on that initial school grade to learn to read, write full sentences, recognize lists of words at first sight and perform basic addition and subtraction, Hazelwood school officials are serious about summer school for the youngest of pupils.

So serious that a group of 5-year-olds quietly gathered at 8:10 a.m. last week in the lobby of Garrett Elementary School while many of their peers slept in or tuned out with early morning cartoons. They sat cross-legged in single file lines on the linoleum floor until their teachers arrived and cheerfully asked each line to stand and walk single-file down the hallway --faces up, posture straight -- into their classrooms.

And they did: quietly and deliberately, without giggles, tickles, line ditching, pushing or silly sounds.

It was just another day at Sunny Start, one of a handful of summer school programs in the region designed to get children ready for the routines and curriculum they will find in kindergarten this August.

"For parents now, they're starting to understand there's a different level of expectations of what kids need to start kindergarten," said Trish Adkins, director of federal programs for the Hazelwood School District.


The program, which enrolls 400 children, is just one of a few remaining in the region after years of budget cuts in other districts as well as questions over the effectiveness of the approach.

Similar programs, typically half a day in duration, are still popular in St. Louis Public Schools and the Rockwood School District. At Rockwood, for example, parents pay $85 for a weeklong program.

But Webster Groves decided that its own five-week "Jump Start" program had little bang for the buck and discontinued it. Other districts have followed suit.

"We pretty much decided our kindergarten teachers do a really good job with acclimating the kids in the school year, and we had kids coming in at all sorts of different levels," said John Simpson, an assistant superintendent for the Webster Groves district.

Some in the child development field worry that the programs are indicative of a national push by too many school districts to regiment young children into rigid, performance-based academic learning too early.

"I don't have a problem that children have a four-week introduction to going to school in the summer, but you don't want them to burn out and get them turned-off to school," warned Joan Almon, director of programs for the Alliance for Children at the University of Maryland.

Administrators and teachers at Hazelwood said the monthlong program that ended last week gives children a chance to test the waters of a more structured school environment so they have less anxiety and more academic and social confidence in the coming school year.

Most of the classrooms are led by district kindergarten teachers, which, at bare minimum, gives the students the chance to know familiar faces when the school year starts in August, said Shanon Drennan, the coordinator for Sunny Start at Garrett Elementary.

For teachers, such programs get more children up to speed earlier on the basic routines and early reading and writing skills needed for an intensive learning year ahead. That makes things easier from the start for teachers who must achieve a lot of goals with their students in just nine months, Drennan said.

Mary Carver said her daughter, Annabell Wallsmith, loves Sunny Start.

"It gets my kid motivated to jump into kindergarten," she said. "She's learning the social skills, and it gets her more ready to read."


But Almon worries that the motivation behind kindergarten summer school in some districts is to prepare students earlier for mandatory assessment testing and to move them away from the free play and exploration that research suggests enhances learning in young children.

"I just think that when we get caught in thinking the most regimented approach will be the best way, I haven't seen them bring about a love of learning or a comfort with a group situation or an excitement about learning," she said.

In the most extreme example she's seen, Almon said, one North Carolina school district openly praised a teacher in their kindergarten summer "boot camp" program who wore military fatigues as she shouted lessons in ABCs and 1-2-3s.

For the record, Mary Brownell, one of the teachers at Sunny Start in Hazelwood, was wearing a T-shirt and capri pants and spoke calmly to her class, just above a whisper, and conducted most of circle time from a rocking chair.

Almon said the push she has seen toward rigid academics is particularly common in lower-income school districts where the stakes for funding and accreditation are high. She cites one study that found kindergartners in New York and Los Angeles public schools spent two to three hours a day in chairs working on literacy, math and testing and allowed about 20 minutes of play time.

At St. Louis Public Schools, Cheryl Davenport, the director of early childhood programs, said the district's free "Kindergarten Here I Come!" program focuses heavily on play, though academic enrichment is a clear goal for their students.

The program, which has been running for more than a decade, enrolled about 400 children this summer. Although it's open to all St. Louis children about to enter kindergarten, Davenport said the bulk of the program's students are recommended by district preschool teachers who identify them as perhaps needing "a little bit of extra time and focus on basic skills such as early reading and early writing."

But, she stressed, the program is geared toward fun. So math and lessons are typically given outside at the water table with measuring cups. Prereading and science come through cooking and art projects.

"Our program is meant to provide additional enrichment time," she said.

— Nancy Cambria
St Louis Post-Dispatch


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