- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Meridian Witt, 6, started first grade this year at Brent Museum Magnet School, a public school on Capitol Hill. Last year, when she was a kindergartner there, her favorite field trip was to the National Air and Space Museum.

"I am really pleased with the museum curriculum," says her mother, Karla Witt of Southeast. "It's object-based, so whatever they are learning, [the teachers] try to get them to it so they can touch it."

Mrs. Witt adds, "They teach critical thinking and how to analyze things and presentation." Last year, Meridian's kindergarten class had to do book reports, which consisted of writing and doing a project. Brent has a schoolwide exhibit that is open to the public every year.

Brent is unique in its theme, which centers around museum learning, and in its partnership with the Smithsonian Institution.

"We have a wonderful collaboration with the Smithsonian," says Connie Cowley, Brent's principal. The program is designed "to support children's need to be able to explore, explain and exhibit," Mrs. Cowley says. "Our children have field studies, and everything is centered around object-based learning."

Magnet schools focus on a particular theme, such as art, science, technology, music or language. In the past, the government used theme-based schools to help attract children from different areas and desegregate schools.

Many magnet schools have kindergarten programs that introduce the special theme and help children create a foundation for their later elementary school years.

Research supports exposing kindergartners to a variety of experiences and says these experiences will benefit them in higher grades. Most magnet schools with kindergarten programs operate on a full-day schedule.

"It's critical in today's society that children are in full-day kindergarten," says Lisa Farabaugh, principal of Rogers Heights Elementary School in Bladensburg. "I am a former primary teacher… . I have seen what children are expected to do in first and second grade. To get a good foundation, they need to be here [the] full day."

Kindergarten magnet schools are not commonplace, but the Washington area does offer choices to parents.

What the studies show

"Kindergarten is a critical period in children's early school careers. It sets them on a path that influences their subsequent learning and social achievement," reports a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

The study, "America's Kindergartners," was released in February. The base-year study in the fall of 1998 involved 20,000 kindergartners, their parents and more than 3,000 kindergarten teachers in 1,000 schools across the country. Of the 4 million children attending kindergarten nationwide, 55 percent were in full-day programs, the study says.

"Children entering kindergarten in the 1990s are different from those who entered in prior decades," the study states. "They come from increasingly diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, social, economic and language backgrounds."

For children to be successful in kindergarten, the study found, they "need to be able to persist at tasks, be eager to learn and be creative in their work."

Interactive play and reading to a child have a direct correlation to a child's readiness and chances for success in school. In fact, children starting kindergarten with this type of experience have vocabularies quadruple that of a child who has not had this intellectual stimulation, the study states.

Another recent report from the National Academy of Sciences focuses on the education of children ages 2 to 5 outside the home. "Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers," says, "There can be no question that the environment in which a child grows up has a powerful impact on how the child develops and what the child learns."

Magnet schools

The concept of magnet schools has been around for decades and stemmed from private-sector schools of the 1960s. The private-sector movement dwindled in the 1970s, but it led the way for thinking about alternative ways of educating youngsters.

The federal government also used magnet schools as a means of desegregating schools in the early 1970s, and today, some magnet schools still operate under this principle, according to Magnet Schools of America, a nonprofit educational resource group.

Parents choose magnet schools based on knowledge of their child's interests, which makes the child's success more likely. In the Washington area, most school systems have some form of magnet or focus school, as some are called.

The District

The Brent Museum Magnet School was created in 1995. It has 350 children in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. It is one of 106 elementary schools in the District, and students there wear uniforms.

"We are unique," Mrs. Cowley says. "We stress not only working with objects … but communication and writing skills and how the children are able to communicate and make meaning out of objects.

"We stress the importance of students being able to work and assume leadership roles," Mrs. Cowley adds. "We want our children to know we are giving our best, and they must realize they have to stay focused and behave according to certain standards."

Prince George's County

Only two magnet programs Montessori and French immersion extend to kindergarten in the Prince George's County schools.

"Research on full-day kindergarten has shown that it is really beneficial for children," says Dottie Giersch, an early childhood specialist for the county. "We look at the whole child, not just academics developing motor skills, social, emotional, physical and cognitive."

"We are discussing the possibility of expanding magnet programs that are successful," says Susan Miller, the county's magnet school administrator.

Prince George's has 170 elementary schools, 55 of which are magnet schools. The county ended last year with about 27,000 magnet students and more than 1,200 on waiting lists, Ms. Miller says.

Doswell E. Brooks Elementary School in Capitol Heights is a magnet school with a Montessori program that starts at age 3.

"Ninety-nine percent of our kindergartners are here at age 3 to 4," says Bettejane Weiss, magnet school coordinator. "The reason we started with the 3-year-olds was that children at that age have an acquisition for language, which is at its height between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2."

The pre-kindergarten classes are in session from 8 to 11 a.m., freeing the afternoon for teachers to do more focused work with the kindergartners. By starting at age 3, the children are in their third year in the same classroom and ideally with the same teacher by kindergarten.

The French immersion program at Rogers Heights is another example of a magnet school with a full-day kindergarten program.

"One of the reasons the program has been so successful is because the teachers have become masters in what they are doing," says Francis Renson, the French immersion magnet coordinator. Mr. Renson says the school has teachers from 12 countries and looks for language proficiency and a specialty in education.

Jacques Chevalier II is the parent of fourth-grader Jacques, who has attended Rogers Heights since kindergarten.

"I thought that being bilingual in today's society would be a vehicle that would increase my son's capabilities," Mr. Chevalier says. "And it definitely has my son was an A student all last year." The younger Jacques, who speaks fluent French, says he likes the program a lot and is looking forward to a sixth-grade exchange program in Quebec and a senior trip to France.

Montgomery County

The magnet school program can be embodied within a traditional school or can encompass the entire school.

"All the magnet schools are whole-school programs," says Virginia Tucker, coordinator of enriched innovative instruction for Montgomery County schools. "There is no screening or selective criteria. It's done through our transfer process and is open to all students within the neighborhood and transfers from within the county."

However, the schoolwide magnets are at capacity, and many are using portable classrooms, Mrs. Tucker says.

Montgomery County schools are boundary-based, which means any students living within the school boundaries can attend that school. Of the county's 185 elementary schools, 15 are magnet schools; of those, 10 have a kindergarten component, five of which are full-day.

"I think there's a real interest in expanding the number of schools to full-day kindergarten," Mrs. Tucker says.

Fairfax County

Some magnet schools with kindergarten don't incorporate the theme until first grade.

Hunters Woods Elementary Magnet School for the Arts and Sciences in Reston is one of two magnet schools in the county. It has a full-day kindergarten with about 65 students who are not part of the magnet curriculum.

"We really wanted full-day kindergarten," says Stephen Hockett, the school's principal. "It provides children in that age level with activities that help them to grow and become lifelong learners."

Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences near Baileys Crossroads also has a full-day kindergarten that is not part of the magnet program.

With 50 percent of the student body Hispanic, the school uses a hands-on integrated program. "Kids actually manipulate materials and interact with things and each other," says Carol Franz, the principal of Bailey's. These children, whose first language is Spanish, need more than English words to absorb the material and can rely on seeing a picture or touching a model, she says.

Magnet schools have become so successful that there are waiting lists of students whose parents want their children to experience what these schools have to offer. Parents whose children attend the full-day kindergarten program will have to consider their options early.

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