Woman opened children's doors Program nurtures school-age kids

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in Sunday's editions of The Sun on school-age child care incorrectly said that a program for children at Hernwood Elementary School in Randallstown was new this school year. That program, Hernwood Kare, is in its 11th year.

The Sun regrets the error.

When Jeanne Page opened the doors to her school-age child care program, six youngsters came in. Two of them were her own.

In the second year, the center at Pine Grove Elementary School in northeastern Baltimore County attracted 22 youngsters, more than half of whom had transferred to the school because Ms. Page could take care of them before and after classes while their parents were at work.

Now, as The Open Door begins its 10th year, Ms. Page's firm is the largest provider of before- and after-school care in Baltimore County. The program cares for 1,000 youngsters at 23 public and private schools there and operates eight more in Anne Arundel County.

But Jeanne Page, a psychologist, had no such grand vision when she put together that first program in 1983.

Her husband had recently left her. Her children were in third, fourth and ninth grades, and the lack of after-school care for the younger ones kept her from returning to work full-time.

"I thought it would get going at my children's school and I would go back to work at the Kennedy Institute," she says.

Ms. Page's children are no longer in child care, but she is. The Open Door, with its headquarters in a small Hunt Valley office complex, employs 125 people, many of them students and women with children. Eight new programs opened when school did in September.

"Not having a business background has been very beneficial to me," says Ms. Page, who concedes that she learned how to operate a non-profit organization by reading a library book.

What guided Jeanne Page through her first program guides her still: "My basis for every decision is, 'if I was a mother, what would I need?' "

The Open Door operates its centers in the schools, usually setting up in the cafeteria before and after the regular school day. In some places, the program provides extended care for half-day kindergartners and for pre-kindergartners.

Eight other organizations operate similar programs in the county's schools, says Eloise Stockdale, coordinator of the Baltimore County Office for Children.

Many have been expanding steadily over the last several years, and a new provider started this year with a center at Hernwood Elementary School in the western part of the county.

Fifty-five of the county's 94 elementary schools have on-site child care; two middle schools have similar programs. And those 57 programs accommodate youngsters from another seven schools nearby. There also are extended-day programs in 22 of the county's parochial schools.

The opening of full-day kindergartens in 32 county elementary schools has taken children away from some of these programs, says Mona Criswell, executive director of Play Centers, which operates 10 programs in the county.

Typically, parents pay between $20 and $50 a week per child, depending on the program and how much time the youngsters spend in after-hours care.

"School-age is a real tricky child care," says Ms. Page, because every family's needs are different. Some need care before school, some after, some both. Some need care five days a week, some three or just two. Some need morning care for their afternoon kindergartners; others afternoon care for their morning kindergartners.

The pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, which meets five half-days in some schools and two full days one week and three the next in other schools really complicates schedules -- for parents and child care providers, says Ms. Page.

School-age child care is tricky, too, because the children have wide-ranging interests and needs. "They need loving, nurturing, listening . . . more than crayons and construction paper set out on a table," says Ms. Page.

They also need a change from the school day, a chance to unwind, to have a snack, to play outside. Some kids need to socialize, others want to go off alone. Some parents want children to complete their homework; others don't even want them to start it.

Most programs average 20 to 60 children from kindergarten through fifth grade. Some operate with as few as 10 kids.

"We really stick our neck out and take a chance [with a minimum number of youngsters]," says Ms. Criswell.

Many of the programs are open on school holidays and snow days. Play Centers is offering a holidays-only program for some middle school students this year.

Ms. Page says, "we just keep saying 'sure,' " to requests from schools to start programs.

Are after-hours day care programs meeting the demand? The issue is unresolved. In a 1991 report, the county's office for children found "a tremendous need for extended care for kindergarten students," said Ms. Stockdale.

At the same time, she said, programs for older children in schools could take more children.

There are other options for older children. Some go to to full-time day care centers for after-school care as well as to family day care homes. The YMCA of Greater Baltimore operates a large program for children from several schools at the Towson "Y."

Nevertheless, the 4,000 school-age children in regulated care in 1991 represented a small fraction of the 50,606 children under 12 in the county schools. Not all of these children have parents who work. Those who do may be going to a neighbor or relative's home, to unregistered day care providers or home alone, Ms. Stockdale says.

"We'd like to think the need is not being met because the 'D [number of] children we've identified as being served is not enough," says Ms. Stockdale.

The middle-to-low-income areas of the county do lack sufficient school-based care, the report showed. "The cost of care was a big factor to these parents," says Ms. Stockdale.

In these areas, too, the need for care fluctuates.

These populations are often transient and more affected by the economy than wealthier areas are. Many parents who aren't employed don't need child care.

"I have a firm belief in supporting families of all income levels," says Ms. Page. "I just really believe in children. I believe they need the best. I also really understand the dilemma of working parents."

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