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Elementary Principals' 'New Design' To Emphasize Learning Through Play

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Atlanta--The National Association of Elementary School Principals is drafting a report that will call for a "new design" for the schooling of 4- to 8-year olds.

The document will stress a theme sounded by more and more national groups in recent months: that young children should be allowed to learn at their own pace through exploration and play.

Members of the organization's early-childhood committee, which has been deliberating for a year and a half, summarized the recommendations at the association's annual convention here last week.

The report, scheduled for release by December, also will discourage practices such as standardized testing, kindergarten retention, and "transitional" programs for kindergarten and 1st-grade pupils deemed "unready" for standard classes.

"We need to get the word 'ready' out and take children where we receive them," said Helen Martin, a Wilton, Conn., principal who serves on the 10-member early-childhood panel. Educators should adopt the philosophy that "schools are ready for children rather than expecting children to be ready for schools," she said.

"Under the guise of reform, schools have adopted kindergarten programs that look more and more like 1st grade," said Arlinda Archuleta, a principal on leave from the Denver public schools who also serves on the n.a.e.s.p. panel.

The committee will support the concept of "primary units" to address the developmental needs of 4- to 8-year-olds, Ms. Archuleta said, because it is convinced that children in the early grades have different learning styles than older children. Members have also registered concern that the trend toward higher expectations for younger children could adversely affect the growing number of 4-year-olds enrolled in public preschools.

The report will propose quality standards for early-childhood curricula, personnel, and parental and community involvement.

The group will recommend, Ms. Archuleta said, that programs instill self esteem and provide children a "sound base of experiences."

Such programs, she said, should include "active rather than passive activities" and provide "concrete encounters with the world" through play and language development.

Principals can play a leadership role by expanding their knowledge of young children's development, securing time and funds to support "developmentally appropriate" programs, and hiring certified early-childhood teachers, Ms. Archuleta said.

The panel will also recommend that early-childhood programs be under "continuous review and evaluation" and that schools be held accountable for their success.

Testing is "one way" to gauge children's progress, said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the n.a.e.s.p., but should be used only in tandem with teacher and parent observations and other assessment tools.

At their convention here last week, naesp delegates adopted a resolution expressing concern over the practice of mandating a certain achievement-test score for promotion to a higher grade. They also passed a measure calling for "multiple and varied" assessment procedures and use of test data "in ways that benefit children."

The report on early-childhood standards also will call on schools to involve parents and other community agencies in planning and coordinating early-childhood programs.

While an overreliance on formal academic work and standardized testing has caused many children to "begin their school years with failure and frustration," Ms. Archuleta said, many schools have begun to "make changes to better meet the needs of young children."

In recent months, a growing number of national groups--from early-childhood specialists' in state education departments to the National Association of State Boards of Education--have denounced the use of formal teaching and worksheets for young children and called for more hands-on learning and play.

Ms. Martin noted that, ironically, the kindergarten curriculum described in the upcoming naesp report will appear "much like the kindergarten of the 1950's."

"The difference," she said, "is that today we know more about how children learn."

In one presentation at the convention, principals from three Jefferson County, Ky., elementary schools described their attempts to restructure instruction through the use of "multi-age" grouping and team teaching.

Such arrangements, said Carletta Bell, principal of Price Elementary School, have aided children in developing independent skills and maturity, and have "forced us to look at each child individually."

The naesp also released the results of a survey showing that changes in the American family have had a "profound" effect on elementary-school instruction.

Citing data projecting that more than half of the children born in the 1980's will live in a single-parent household at some point, the group said they have become "one of the schools' most significant minorities."

"Principals and teachers are knocking themselves out to fill in the gaps, make children feel comfortable with their family status, and keep the parents involved," Mr. Sava said.

About 85 percent of the principals surveyed said they try to make sure curricula relfect "a variety of family types"; more than 90 percent have tried to provide textbooks depicting "varying family patterns."

Other signs of change cited in the n.a.e.s.p. survey include:

Efforts by teachers to avoid "verbal discrimination" against children from single-parent homes;

Before- and after-school homework and training programs for parents and grandparents, and

Efforts to host alternatives to mother's and father's days and to plan activities on school holidays.

In addition to its resolution on testing, the group also passed a measure urging principals to consider parents' work hours in scheduling conferences and other activities and to maintain a climate "supportive to all children, regardless of family pattern."

The group also passed resolutions calling for a full-time nurse in every school, development of emergency plans for violent incidents around schools, and formation of local certification committees to review and monitor standards for principals.

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