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There is nothing striking about the exterior of High Point High School. Located in Beltsville, the school is part of the Prince George’s County School System, which isn’t always an endearing establishment.

Over half of the students roaming these halls come from impoverished families. Needless to say, academic opportunities in these classrooms aren’t abundant, but the program is set on changing these norms and creating a new culture of education across the state.

Inside the school, Dawn Ellington is determined to change the standards. In doing this, she faces a daunting task. As she stands in a crowded classroom, her duties aren’t just to oversee her high school students. She must also tend to their students, who happen to be a band of preschoolers.

Currently in her 28th year of teaching and 9th year at High Point High School, Ellington has been in control of the child development program for half a decade.

“Since the program has started, we have anywhere from 10-15 children. This year, we have 16 children and we have a waiting list,” says Ellington.

This program is one of many recent initiatives in Maryland designed to ensure children are “fully ready” for their entrance into kindergarten and the years of education that follow. As results of the initiatives become available, increasing numbers of teachers and parents are realizing the importance of such programs in giving children the skills and knowledge that will be required as they advance through school.

“I think that it’s very true that children need to have a pre-foundation of going to preschool so the sole purpose is to prepare them for kindergarten before they start,” says an adamant Ellington.

Giving students this foundation is what ensures they will be “fully ready” for entrance into kindergarten.

“I think if I had to do my teaching career all over again, I think I would have probably wanted to be a early childhood education teacher,” says Ellington. “I love just seeing that sparkle in their eyes, hearing that giggle, knowing that they’ve gotten a concept, and knowing that I’ve put some inspiration into them to learn and wanting to go to school and do well and be prepared for Kindergarten.”

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 In the past four years, Kindergarten readiness has increased from 68 percent to 83 percent, according to the Maryland Government Annual Performance Report as prepared for the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

As the numbers show, the term “fully ready is not one educators use lightly. Being “fully ready” means that children are capable of reading and constructing sentences as well as exhibiting appropriate skills and responses.

“Children who come fully ready to learn are ‘available’ for instruction. They have the prerequisite skills to be successful readers, communicators, and critical thinkers,” says Sharon Hoffman, the Early Childhood Supervisor for the Baltimore County Board of Education.

The goal of the programs implemented by Maryland schools is to catalyze development whether it is social, cognitive, or physical. The effectiveness of these new initiatives can be seen in the results, which show nearly 7,300 kindergarten students entered their classrooms fully prepared.

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As Jordan Kennedy steps through the doorway, she can feel a rush of excitement and nervousness. In just hours, the classroom she has just entered will harbor 19 wide-eyed kindergarteners starting their first day. This might seem like a frightening position for a recent college graduate, but as the buses begin to arrive and the children find their way to their homerooms, any fear quickly turns to quiet anticipation.

As each new occupant enters the room, they greet their new mentor with a surplus of hugs and the occasional, “you’re the best teacher ever!” For Kennedy, this is a gratifying reaction that rationalizes the hard work necessary to get her to this point.

“I never had to think about what I wanted to do,” says Kennedy with the exuberance befitting of one of her students. “This is really all I’ve ever wanted to do. I want to be a part of building the foundation for the rest of their careers.”

Kennedy, a kindergarten teacher in Anne Arundel County, is a new face in the education system.  At 22, she can remember her own experiences in kindergarten, and can clearly see a vast difference in the years that have elapsed.

“There is an immense amount of differences,” she says. “I remember the social aspect, but now it’s so much more rigorous and there’s so many more expectations. It really is the new first grade.”

In her first year as an educator, she has been impressed by the students’ levels of maturity and preparedness. She has also seen a willingness to learn in her students, even those who are not as advanced academically as others.

“I had a student come in who knew about three lower case letters and five upper case letters,” she says. “When I tested him last week, he knew all but three. I was blown away.”

This change can be attributed to the increased expectations teachers have of their students, and the urgency they place on learning, even as early on as kindergarten. For officials and educators, getting students ready for and successfully through kindergarten is more important than ever, and they continue to make strides to ensure such expectations are met.

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Over the past ten years, officials have worked on giving more attention to early childhood education, as well as creating new modes of assessment aimed at determining how “ready” children really are.

 In fact, officials are constantly creating new assessments aimed at improving the system.

“We’re developing a new assessment system,” says William Reinhard, an official with the Maryland State Department of Education Media Relations Department. “We want to make sure that not only do we think our children are improving, but they’re improving at rates at least equivalent to children in other states.”

Not only do educators and officials expect more of themselves, but as Kennedy said, they also are expecting more of their students. Rather than looking at kindergarten as a place to simply play and socialize, more and more teachers are giving their students learning and development goals to meet.

“When they start kindergarten, I’ve heard now they want children to be prepared to be able to actually read and to be able to write at least a sentence,” Ellington says.

The emphasis on learning and instruction is one now encouraged and cultivated in all areas of early childhood education.

“Child care centers are very important when it comes to helping instruct our young learners–it’s not just babysitting,” Reinhard says. “In fact we have a curriculum for child care centers. We have this curriculum that kind of ties in with the rest of our standards here in Maryland, and that has helped improve the educational services we have for young learners.”

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 Kindergarten teacher Kathy Schulien has witnessed plenty of change in the school system. With two children of her own (both under the ages of 12), she can easily compare the efforts of teachers in preparing her daughters for kindergarten with those used in schools today. The difference, she says, is staggering.

“There is a huge difference in what kindergarten looks like now and what it looked like ten years ago,” she says. “The expectations, the bar has been raised and keeps getting raised on these five-year-olds. I would say kindergarten now is more like first grade 15 years ago.”

As an educator with much experience working with assessments, she can attest to their importance as teaching and learning tools. One such assessment is the Maryland Model for School Readiness (MSSR), which was first implemented in 1998 but was revised earlier this year to better accommodate children from all learning backgrounds.

“The MSSR is a tool that kindergarten teachers use in Maryland to make observations on students,” Schulien says. “It allows us to get a snapshot of how prepared they are coming in and lets us know if they are ready for learning.”

The assessments give insight into how well students, teachers and parents are doing in preparing their children for kindergarten, and Schulien has definitely seen results.

“We have seen in recent years that these students are coming in prepared,” she says.

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While the increase in readiness is exciting for Maryland education officials, they are determined to take it further, and most are very aware of what needs to be done to ensure the numbers continue to rise. Much of those efforts, they say, begins in the home.

 “I think working with your children at home [will help increase readiness], not just putting everything off on the teacher,” Ellington says. “It’s okay to let your children play and have fun, but I think you need to make sure that you read to the children, take them to the library, to expose them to a lot of cultural experiences, to work on their vocabulary development, to let them socialize with other children.”

Educators urge parents to take an active role in their child’s development by providing an environment that promotes constant learning and engagement.

“Parents need to model to their children what reading looks like, sounds like,” Schulien says. “They need to mimic what we do in school. It starts with communicating, exposing them to the world, and even just opening up dialogue at dinner time.”

This means parents must physically interact with their children, rather than rely on television or computer programs.

“Parents need to continue to talk and communicate with their children,” Schulien says. The media, TV, computers, don’t offer that type of interaction, which is really what children need to learn how to communicate.”

Hoffman believes that too much technological stimulation, if not limited, can hazardous to children’s development. Real development, she says, comes through interaction and socialization.

“I believe we need to be very careful about the amount of exposure young children have to technology,” Hoffman says. “They need to participate in engaging multi-sensory experiences with adults and other children.”

Educators emphasize the importance such development has on children long after kindergarten has ended.

“We found out that the kids who are doing well and are prepared to learn for kindergarten are the ones who are doing the best when we assess them in third grade,” Reinhard says. “So there’s real evidence that [the children] entering kindergarten prepared…are also the ones who score the highest in tests in third grade [next time they are assessed].”

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It’s not easy to impress long-time educator Sharon Lilly. It is a typical weekday, and her 11-year-old son Alex has just returned home from school. He unceremoniously unveils a monstrous collection of school assignment and textbooks. All in all, it totals about three hours of work, a workload fit for a college student, not a sixth grader and an example clearly indicative of the heightened standards in early education.

Lilly, an Assistant Principle at North Carroll Middle School, recognizes the importance of preparedness well beyond the years of kindergarten. She has seen the effects of the programs on her own children and students as they advance through school.

“There’s more direct motivation in these students,” she says. “It’s almost like the middle school kids now are at the same level of high schoolers five years ago.”

A mother of two, she can personally relate to the school system’s new approach of pushing children harder at earlier ages. As a parent, she emphasizes a more “hands-off” approach, through which she encourages her children (ages 11 and eight) to strive for excellence on their own.

“I think it’s more important for them to struggle and sometimes fail in order for them to approach success,” she says.

While this is not a new parenting tool, it is an innovative method in schools, one which encourages hard work and self-determination at young ages.

This approach, combined with new programs and assessments, has led to the dramatic increase in readiness that has teachers and educators so proud. While they agree there is still much to accomplish, officials are happy with the steps that have been made in the education system.

“With these new standards, teachers are pushing harder and building towards better students at all levels,” Lilly says.

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