Preschool for homeless children losing its own home

Like a real-life episode of "Sesame Street," the lesson at The Ark preschool on a recent day was sponsored by the letter "S." Eight friends, as the teachers call the 3- and 4-year-old children, were buzzing like a hive of bees as they sounded out words such as "summer," "soccer" and "square."

For the grown-ups who run The Ark, Baltimore's only state-accredited preschool for homeless children, the task at hand is even more challenging: to find a way to continue the lessons beyond "S," and the summer. The Ark's building is for sale, and the preschool needs to move out by September.

That a preschool for the homeless could itself find itself homeless has the operator, Episcopal Community Services of Maryland, scrambling. It hopes to preserve this bit of stability in what is an uncertain time in the students' lives.

"They get the care and the attention they need at a time when things are pretty chaotic," said Jean P. Cushman, executive director of the faith-based charitable group.

The Ark is the sole remaining tenant in the GBMC Weinberg Community Health Center at 1200 E. Fayette St. The Greater Baltimore Medical Center previously ran a medical clinic there, but the Towson-based hospital, citing market conditions and competition, decided in 2006 to leave the facility, referring its patients to the Baltimore Medical System, a network of six clinics for low-income and uninsured people in the city.

GBMC has been trying to sell the building for years, spokesman Michael Schwartzberg said, and while other tenants have moved out, The Ark was allowed to remain while it looked for a new home. The medical center has come close to selling several times, including to buyers who agreed to let the preschool stay, but those deals fell through and the 31,600-square-foot building remains on the market, he said.

GBMC is losing more than $11,000 a month, Schwartzberg said, because the below-market rent of $1,050 a month that it charges The Ark barely makes a dent in the cost of keeping electricity and other services going in the otherwise empty building.

At their young age, the kids are oblivious to the behind-the-scenes efforts to relocate their school. They arrive at The Ark, either by a van that has picked them up at a shelter, or dropped off by parents, indistinguishable from any other group of preschoolers — full of energy and ready for the day's activities.

"He loves it," Helen Whitfield says as her son, Andrew, 4, bounds in, the first student to arrive on this particular day. He races over to teacher Sandy Lee, beaming as he shows her his completed homework and getting enveloped in a big hug in return.

Whitfield, 46, has been staying at the Karis House shelter for the past two months, having become homeless after being out of work for more than a year and having to move out of quarters she had shared with someone.

"It's not easy," she sighs. "There are no jobs."

The Ark staff has found a pre-kindergarten program for Andrew to attend starting in August, and Whitfield credits the preschool with preparing him for it.

"He'll be ready," she says proudly. "This is his first preschool. He was not used to being around other kids, he was not used to sharing. He's learning his colors, his numbers. He's learning how to sound out letters."

The Ark opened in 1989 to serve children who were living in shelters or bunking temporarily with relatives or friends. Its goal was to provide them with the skills that educators say are vital for kindergarten and beyond.

After operating out of church basements and other facilities, the preschool moved into the GBMC Weinberg center in 2004. Cushman said the Episcopal group loves the building, and has been grateful for the low rent and a recent extension of an earlier deadline for vacating.

Cushman said staff has cast "a pretty broad net" to find a new home, but is hampered by space and location requirements. As a federal Head Start program, for example, the preschool has to have its own playground or one within safe walking distance for small kids, as well as appropriate kitchen and bathroom facilities. And, given the population it serves, the preschool needs to be convenient to shelters and public transit.

It is an unusual preschool program, since children come and go year-round as their family housing situations fluctuate. Other Head Start programs generally fill up in September, and may not have slots open for children whose families suddenly become homeless.

"You can't just jump in in the middle," Cushman said.

Although The Ark is licensed for a maximum of 20 children, it can serve as many as 70 in a year as some of the kids' families move to permanent housing elsewhere, and those on the waiting list take their place.

"We've had children come one day, and then we don't see them again," said Nancy E. Newman, The Ark's director. "And sometimes kids come back."

Such is the transitory nature of the preschool's target population, as families cycle in and out of homelessness, sometimes more than once. The Ark's goal is to move kids as quickly as possible to a more permanent placement, but that depends on their parents' finding housing. The average time most kids are at the school is four months, although that can vary widely.

As Episcopal Community Services seeks a new home for the school, it's business as usual in the classroom.

Teachers, aides and volunteers keep the kids on a schedule, with a lineup of breakfast, tooth brushing, reading, playtime, story time, lunch and more tooth brushing giving them structure. Because kids enter the program at different times of the year, staffers assess each one and draw up individualized plans, which might include extra help on language development or social skills.

Much of the teachers' time — as with any kids this age — is spent on crowd control, with frequent reminders to speak softly, share toys, and raise hands before answering questions.. When necessary, kids take time-outs in a chair in a corner.

There are no field trips on this day, although recently the kids visited a farm that gave them a dozen eggs that they tended to until they hatched. The small playground just outside the door beckons, and nearby volunteers have planted a small garden, with morning glories that climb up a fence and squash, cucumbers and strawberries that the kids will pick come harvest time.

Meanwhile, Episcopal Community Services continues looking for a new home, willing to go up in rent and renovate a space to fit The Ark's needs — even if it means going over the current $377,000 annual budget and stepping up fundraising efforts. The group, which also offers other community programs, such as the Jericho job-development assistance for ex-offenders, is supported by donations, foundations and the United Way.

Even though The Ark serves a group that may be transition, parents and children who have since moved on sometimes return to visit, Newman said.

"One of our former kids came back recently. When he was with us, he knew no English," she said. "Now he's finished kindergarten. So we know we've had an impact."