At Mary M. Hooker School near some of this city's toughest housing projects, Irma Zsitvay's kindergarteners sit quietly in neat rows of desks, laboring over letters and words on sheets of lined paper.
No games or toys clutter the floor. The walls are unrelieved by decoration.
Zsitvay lectures and questions. Her 5- and 6-year-olds listen and answer. "I'm strict," she tells a visitor.
Just a few doors away, Odile Mikutajtis teaches a very different sort of kindergarten from Zsitvay's, whose no-nonsense brand of education has in recent years grown in favor in American schools.
Mikutajtis' 15 pupils learn by playing, as children did in "old-fashioned" kindergartens that predominated a generation ago. They don't have to struggle with lessons or work sheets. To learn about Thanksgiving, she said, "we built the Mayflower, colored in Pilgrims. We sailed the boat. We actually did it."
This clash of educational philosophies is increasingly being played out around the country, with kindergartens like the two at Mary Hooker the battleground.
The conflict pits the many school districts and parents who believe that kindergarteners can, and should, handle more rigorous academics against critics who believe that academically oriented kindergarten is a mistake that actually works against future success by souring children on school.
Leading this counterattack are early childhood experts such as Tufts University's David Elkind whose best-selling book, "The Hurried Child," urges parents and schools to take it easy on preschoolers and kindergarteners.
He and others argue that forcing 5- and 6-year-olds to sit quietly at desks all day doing pencil-and-paper work is simply inappropriate and flies in the face of well-established research by the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and others on how youngsters that age learn.
Last month, the National Assn. of State Boards of Education, the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children and the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals said they will join forces to find ways to ease the mounting academic pressures on very young pupils.
"There's a growing tendency in early childhood education to 'hothouse' children, to push children to acquire skills they're not ready for," said Marilyn Smith, executive director of the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children.
Academically oriented kindergarten has its roots in the Sputnik era of the 1950s when the Soviets stunned America by launching the first space satellite. The event led to widespread changes in U.S. curricula, including kindergarten.
Educators and parents alike concluded that the earlier children begin learning to read, write and compute, the better.
This get-tough philosophy has gotten a second wind in the 1980s as reformers decry the "mediocrity" of U.S. schools, declare preschool and kindergarten "make-or-break" years and clamor for a return to "basics," even at such beginning levels.
More states have recently concluded that "earlier is better."
Sandra Longfellow Robinson, an associate professor of education at the University of South Carolina who surveyed school officials about kindergarten in 1974, 1981 and 1986, said 23 states offered kindergarten to at least 90% of eligible children in 1974. By 1986, 46 states offered it.
In 1982, only Florida required kindergarten attendance. Four years later, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia made kindergarten mandatory, and New Mexico will this year.
Building blocks, toy stoves and easels have given way to desk work and mimeographed work sheets that children take home at night, a tangible sign to anxious parents that their child's kindergarten brooks no nonsense.
Ann Gunning, a retired kindergarten teacher from Ithaca, N.Y., who administered early childhood programs beginning with the Sputnik period, said she had seen gradual changes throughout her career.
"Play was once the work of kindergarten children. But then I saw play corners disappear. They introduced reading materials and work sheets. The boards of education started to lean on the administrators. Then they leaned on teachers," Gunning said.
"It seems that every time there is national distress, the community puts it on the backs of children, even the very youngest. We end up frightening parents," she said.
Alice Davis, in charge of Hartford's early childhood programs, freely admitted to a reporter that the academic slant characterizing the majority of her city's kindergarten programs simply isn't working.
A Board of Education report last February found that fully one-quarter of Hartford's kindergarteners were being retained for a second year. At the Hooker school, the figure was 49%.
In kindergarten, the seeds of failure are often well-sown, said Davis and others. Some 5-year-olds are already logging as many as 50 or 60 absences a year. Parents, often young, single and immature themselves, fail to get their children to school. And kindergarteners themselves are often less than eager to face a day of academics, she said.
"The dropout syndrome begins at this age," said Davis. "By the time you get to third grade, the kids are lost. They have already missed so much."
Often the impetus for change has had to come from outside the school Establishment.
In Hartford, Travelers Corp. and the University of Hartford have teamed with the public schools in Project HELP, which assists the early childhood programs.
Mikutajtis' class is one of 14 "adaptive kindergarten" classes begun by Project HELP this year. The idea is to remove the stigma of failing and give less developed youngsters who probably would have failed regular kindergarten an extra year of less pressured "adaptive K."
One hint of early success: Daily absences in adaptive K have been averaging just one or two children, contrasted with six or seven a day in other Hartford kindergartens.
In New York City, the American Reading Council is in the midst of a five-year project called Open Sesame to reshape elementary education at PS 192, an overcrowded central Harlem school where 92% of the pupils come from non-English-speaking homes, and where reading test scores are among the lowest in the city.
As in Hartford, the strategy is to return kindergarten to a less stressful atmosphere. Open Sesame emphasizes reading, but with a twist: Boring "basal readers" and phonics work sheets have been banished, replaced by such "real" books as "Silly Old Possum" and "Mrs. Wishy Washy" that children relish.
'Bedtime Story Milieu'
"We try to create the bedtime story milieu of middle-class children for children who never had it," said Rita Compain, a children's librarian since 1947 who is running the 3-year-old program for the reading council.
When Compain walked into a classroom one recent morning, the children burst into cheers. Some ran up and hugged her. As she explained to a visitor, "I'm the one who brings in the new books."
By June, youngsters who barely spoke English at the start of the school year are usually able to read--fluently and aloud--stories that they and their classmates made up together.
Irving Lazar, a professor of human service studies at Cornell University, said the yardstick of kindergarten success should be "smiles per hour."
"We're pushing kids too hard too soon," he said, "and they're getting turned off to the whole process of schooling."