The students will be chosen from Bester, Winter Street and Salem Avenue elementary schools, which have some of the highest percentages of students participating in low-income assistance programs.
With family structures becoming more diverse and school serving as a stabilizing factor in a child's life, the Washington County Board of Education wants to explore more nontraditional instructional strategies such as full-day kindergarten, according to the board's 1998 strategic plan.
Letitia Nalley doesn't know if her daughter will be selected for the pilot program yet, but thinks the program will benefit those chosen.
"I think it would be better for a lot of kids because I don't think they get what they need at home," said Nalley, 29, of Hagerstown.
In today's society parents are often working or don't care to help teach their child to learn, said Nalley, who said she spent time preparing her daughter for prekindergarten.
"They leave it up to teachers ... It's good to teach them ahead. That way they're not behind when they get to school," Nalley said.
Because students come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, they don't arrive at kindergarten or often even first grade on a level playing field, early learning experts said.
The full-day program will give teachers additional time to provide more intense lessons and give individual attention to better prepare at-risk students for first grade and more rigorous curriculums later on, Grafwallner said.
In Allegany County, Md., where the school system has just finished phasing in full-day kindergarten after six years, parents are telling school officials their children seem more mature and better prepared for first grade, said Helen Ann Warnick, director of elementary education.
"When children came into first grade they were much farther ahead socially and academically," Warnick said. First grade teachers noted that students who had full-day kindergarten were about six weeks ahead of those who started first grade after half-day kindergarten.
The school system focused on early literacy so students were read to at least twice a day and every day they had an opportunity to write and draw, Warnick said.
The earlier children learn good work and study habits the better off they will be later in school and life, said Pat Hare, who teaches pre-kindergarten to many of the children expected to participate in next fall's pilot program.
"I know that sounds funny at the age of five," Hare said.
In a half-day, or approximately three hours, there is little time for instruction after time for snack, play and talking about the day's lesson plan are factored in, said Christy Spicer, elementary director at Grace Academy, which offers full-day kindergarten.
When Spicer was an instructional assistant for kindergartners at Salem Avenue Elementary School, she assisted children who didn't know their shapes and colors, and couldn't tell letters from numbers, she said.
"I saw progress that I don't think would have happened if no one was pulling them aside" as instructional assistants do, Spicer said.
A full day for at-risk children will give teachers time to focus on students' weaknesses, Hare said.
By adding full-day kindergarten, Washington County is not leading a trend, but joining one that has been growing for decades, according to Grafwallner and studies.
Close to 50 percent of elementary schools in the nation provide a form of extended or full-day kindergarten, Grafwallner said.
Only three public school systems in Maryland do not offer a form of full-day or extended kindergarten this school year - St. Mary's, Worcester and Washington counties, Grafwallner said.
Washington County's pilot program is being funded by a three-year Goals 2000 state grant that will provide $200,000 in its first year, enough to pay the salaries of four kindergarten teachers and buy supplies, said Director of Elementary Education John W. Festerman.
The amount of the grant will decrease in the second and third years so local funding will be needed for those years, he said.
Festerman said he expects to ask the board not only to back up the pilot program in its second year, but also to begin offering full-day kindergarten in a few other schools during the 2001-02 school year.
"I think it's necessary to have it in every (elementary) school," Schools Superintendent Herman Bartlett said.