It was the seventh day of school at Metzgar Elementary, and Marian Arndt's afternoon kindergarten students were writing their first sentences.

"I LIKE IDWLD," one girl printed in large block letters, referring to the Ligonier theme park.

Another girl, trying to write "I like soccer," needed help with her letter sounds.

"Soccer begins with…" coached teacher Anthony Barbato, who was helping Arndt with the writing lesson.

"C!" the child guessed.

"It could be a 'C,' but it's like a snake," Barbato said, exaggerating the sibilant sound.

"S!" she shouted, and began to draw the letter in her journal.

Their spelling was not perfect, but the 5-year-olds were beginning to sound out words and write legible letters. By the end of the year, Arndt said, most of the children will be reading books with multiple sentences on a page.

"It's amazing," said Arndt, who has taught kindergarten for 35 years at the Salem school. "The kindergarten of olden days was mostly nap time and playing with toys. We started to do writing in kindergarten maybe six years ago, and I thought, 'My kids can't do this!' But we have high expectations now, and I think that's a good thing."

Previous generations of kindergarteners came to school to learn their ABCs and the numbers one through 10. But according to standards set in 2006 by the state Department of Education, today's kindergarteners should learn to read and write complete sentences and count to 100 by ones and tens.

Some educators say kindergarten has become the new first grade.

"It's kind of like they've brought everything down a year," said Don Alexander, who teaches kindergarten at Carnegie Elementary School in the Carlynton School District. "Even within the last couple years, more emphasis has been placed on reading and math."

"Children are capable of more than we had thought," said Jerlean Daniel, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children and a former University of Pittsburgh professor. "We've learned a lot over the past 10 years from brain research, from scholars looking at mathematics and the progression of early literacy."

But Daniel and other advocates worry that schools might be expecting too much of kindergarteners.

"I think the age of accountability has caused lots of changes, unfortunately, with push-down from the upper grades," Daniel said, referring to standardized testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 federal law that was designed to hold schools accountable for student achievement. In Pennsylvania, testing begins in the third grade, and the state's requirements for kindergarten are geared toward getting children on track to pass.

This year, the Maryland-based nonprofit Alliance for Childhood published a report, "Crisis in the Kindergarten," that called for more playtime and fewer academic lessons.

"Play-oriented kindergartens, when they're done well, actually do a better job of creating the foundations of literacy," said Sharna Olfman, a Point Park University psychology professor and a member of the organization's advisory board. "When children engage in make-believe play, they're creating a story. They're engaging with each other in language skills."

The impact of more academic rigor in kindergarten is not yet well-researched. Although test scores in Pennsylvania and other states have gone up in the years since kindergarten became more academic, critics say there have been negative psychological effects.

"Kids get depressed. They get anxious. They might start acting out," said Olfman, who sees children in her clinical psychology practice. "We're seeing so many kids on meds."

Kathy Hunter, who teaches kindergarten in Latrobe Elementary School, said her students seemed to adjust easily to her full-day academic kindergarten.

"They seem relaxed and happy," she said.

That morning, the class learned about the pronoun "I," the first of about 25 "high-frequency words" that will be central to their reading and writing lessons this year.

"When you see that capital 'I' all by itself, that is our new word," Hunter told the children as they sat in a circle on the floor. "We're going to use it in our little books."

To reinforce the idea, Hunter read the class "From Head to Toe," a book by Eric Carle, in which characters proclaim, "I can do it!"

Beth Kellerman, co-president of the Latrobe Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization, said she fought against full-day kindergarten before the district started it two years ago.

"Kids grow up so fast as it is," she said. "Why do you have to push them, push them, push them?"

Kellerman's daughter Megan, who is now in second grade, initially struggled in full-day kindergarten.

"The first few weeks were hell," Kellerman said. "She would come home and she was tired and miserable. It took her three weeks to adjust."

But Megan soon grew to enjoy kindergarten, her mother said.

"It totally changed my perspective," Kellerman said. "She can read like no second-grader I've ever seen. The momentum continues."

Momentum also was the goal in the Penn-Trafford School District, said Melissa Vovaris, who teaches half-day kindergarten at Level Green Elementary School.

"At Penn-Trafford, one of the visions is developing students who are college-ready," she said. "I think what they do is take 'college-ready' and trickle it down the line."

Developing college-ready kindergarteners can present challenges, however.

While most of her students come to kindergarten having been in preschool for a year, Vovaris said, some need extra help. For them, the district offers "Kindergarten Corner," a tutoring program before and after school.

To identify those students, Vovaris administers pencil and paper tests every nine weeks. Though the children do not realize they are being tested, she said, the exams show who needs extra help.

"They help us know whether we can move forward or whether we have to review," she said, as her 12 students worked quietly on a worksheet.

While Vovaris said her three-hour class did not leave much time for play, other teachers, especially those with full-time classes, said they did their best to include it.

"We see the value in recess, in dramatic play, in the block area," said Samantha Perlik, who teaches kindergarten at Grandview Elementary School in Tarentum. "In order for them to be successful in the learning environment, they have to be able to work together, and that's where they get those social skills."

"We have play time," said Hunter, whose classroom is equipped with toy trucks, puzzles and a kitchen set, in addition to computers and books. "We still have quiet time. We want to increase their learning, but we do realize they are 5- and 6-year-olds."


Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review –