Open house builds interest in new Davenport Preschool

Anticipation is on the rise over plans for a new preschool in Hampton.

Although it might have taken some imagination during Saturday's open house to picture the finished interior of the new Davenport Preschool in the small, plain rooms of its new home, Belvedere Christian Church, it took no imagination to see how future students might enjoy it.

What colored and enlivened the building that afternoon of Jan. 5 — more so than the paint, toys and blackboards still to come — was what Davenport's new founder and director, Liz Harlan, had missed since she left her last position as director of another preschool: the children.

"It was just so noisy, which I loved," Harlan said. "The kids were running, laughing, playing all over the place."

"All the parents were here and they were running into people they didn't even know they knew," Harlan said. "Everybody, for the first time in a long time, just seemed happy, and that was a comment I kept getting, it's nice to be in a happy place."

After a tumultuous year for Harlan, that happiness is more than welcomed.

Harlan left in June as the director of the Trinity Episcopal Children's Center in Towson. Her departure after five years was part of sweeping changes, both in personnel and philosophy, by that church's clergy.

Her departure and the circumstances around it now seem surreal, she said. But after regrouping during the summer and working as a long-term substitute science teacher at Jemicy School in Owings Mills, Harlan was finally able to fully focus on her new project: starting a new school.

The first phase of her efforts culminated on Saturday, which she said was a day like Christmas. A child from seemingly every family coming through the door ran toward her with a hug. Most of the children and families she knew from her position at Trinity. She hadn't seen many since Memorial Day.

Harlan said she didn't reach out to any of the families to promote the open house.Most of the 100 in attendance at the open house — including the 75 she estimated were Trinity Children Center families — learned of the open house through word of mouth, including social media efforts by a group of parents who have supported Harlan's efforts to start up the new school along the way.

"It's not just me — there's a whole team of parents," she said. "I kind of joke some days that they'd probably be doing this without me," Harlan said.

One such parent, Amy Christopher, of Aigburth Manor, said her experience with Harlan at Trinity led to her supporting the new school.

"I think that there's a lot of hope and optimism around Liz's vision, and that very much speaks to the kind of leader she is," said Christopher, who has pre-enrolled one of her two children in the new school. "You see all these kids running up and hugging the director of the school. That's powerful stuff."

Families who attended the open house were supplied with maps to guide them through the building to locations proposed for classrooms. Harlan hopes to offer two classes for 2-year-olds, three for 3-year-olds and four pre-K classes.

One woman, whom Harlan recalled speaking briefly, said her young daughter felt so at home during the open house that she didn't want to leave.

"That someone can get that from all the parents and all the families on their own just says so much about all the families involved," Harlan said.

More open houses are scheduled for the coming months, but after 130 children pre-registered, Harlan has opened the full registration process. Harlan plans to sign a lease later this month with the building's landlord, whom she said has been incredibly supportive of her mission.

After that, students will be registered and renovations will be made for an August 2013 opening.

One potential roadblock was removed last week when the Hampton Gardens Neighborhood Association issued a letter of support for the preschool at the Belvedere location.

When a "mega-church" was proposed for the site last year, which is nestled into a residential community, residents came out in force to oppose it.

"As the former director of a prominent preschool in the heart of Towson, and the swim coach for Hampton Pool for the past three years, Ms. Harlan … has already established deep ties in the Towson community, and specifically here in our Hampton neighborhood," association President Stephen Bird wrote in the letter.

"I can think of no better fit than a preschool dedicated to serving the diverse needs of our families with young children, with a focus on education that views community engagement as central to its teaching philosophy."

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