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New school readiness training focuses on diversity

Three-year-old Annabella has two dads: Daddy Bob and Daddy Miguel, a gay couple who adopted her when she was an infant. She's having trouble transitioning into a preschool program, and her fathers worry that they're being shunned by the director because of their sexual orientation.

Behrouz, also 3, just moved to Maryland from Iran a few months ago. He's struggling with English and won't play with the other children in his preschool program.

Sascha, on the other hand, who lives with her brother, mother and grandmother, loves her class, especially the sandbox play and painting. But her mom, who works two jobs and takes great care to dress her daughter impeccably, is not so thrilled about the mess they make.

Those scenarios are among a handful of fictional situations — based on real life — being used this year to train Maryland child care providers to empathize and interact with a wide swath of people while teaching their young charges to respect diversity.

"Families are changing. It's not the nuclear family anymore. Grandma and Grandpa are raising babies, Mom and Mom are raising babies, and folks have come to the realization that they have to be accepting and [understand] where [others] are coming from," said Cara Bethke, a child care community outreach specialist who conducts the voluntary training as part of the state's efforts to prepare young children for school.

Roughly 20 percent of the same-sex couples in the Baltimore region are raising children, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law. Maryland's immigrant population — now at more than 800,000 people — has been steadily rising, increasing 55 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census. And more than 8 percent of the state's children now live in homes headed by grandparents.

In recognition of that, the Maryland Family Network, a nonprofit in charge of training child care providers who work with children before they start kindergarten, ages 3 and up, added the case studies to its "Maryland Model for School Readiness," or MMSR, curriculum this year.

"The landscape of child care is very different in Maryland than it was even five or 10 years ago. Providers of child care are experiencing a lot more diversity in terms of the families with whom they work, the children with whom they work," said Steve Rohde, deputy director of child care resource and referral services for the Maryland Family Network.

Better preparing state children for school has been a particular focus since the 2001-2002 academic year, when fewer than half of the incoming kindergartners — 49 percent — were judged "fully ready" by their teachers. Since then, the percentage has improved 33 points to 82 percent.

The Maryland State Department of Education has long trained public school teachers on how to prepare and assess children once they're in school. In 1998, the Maryland Family Network took that program and adapted it for those who work with children before they get to school, in day care centers or licensed family homes.

The program focuses on a child's age-appropriate development within seven domains: language, math, science, arts, physical health, social studies and personal interactions. The new emphasis on diversity is meant to improve a child's ability to relate to others and understand the world.

It used to be that "you took your child to child care in your community, and it wasn't as diverse," said Jennifer Lentz, the MMSR professional development coordinator. The new program "is on the cutting edge of this changing world," she said.

Maryland Family Network expects to train more than 200 providers using the new case studies by the fall.

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