After 25 years, kids are smarter, nursery school founder says NORTH COUNTY


It's not unusual for St. John's Cooperative Nursery School to get students before they've learned to crawl.

Kids aren't actually starting school younger these days, but parents seem to be getting a jump on enrolling them in this Linthicum school.

"Sometimes they start calling up as soon as their baby is born," said Jane Soverns, who keeps a waiting list for the class of '96.

Twenty-five years ago, the former public school teacher came to teach temporarily at a new, church-sponsored nursery school planned as a cooperative effort between teachers and parents. A quarter-century later, she's still there, still teaching, but also directing the program -- which has become popular with parents because it requires their involvement.

During Ms. Soverns' tenure, nearly 1,000 children have come through her classrooms. Enrollment has mushroomed, teachers have come and gone and the school has moved from its original location in the old Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad station to St. John Lutheran Church on West Maple Road.

These days, children seem more sophisticated and street-wise than when the school began, Ms. Soverns says.

"We've discovered that pre-school-age children are perfectly capable of learning a lot, and so we run this more as a pre-kindergarten," Ms. Soverns said.

No longer content to play with teddy bears and Raggedy Ann dolls, her students now learn computer skills and keep up on current events. Although a mock election last November showed mostly Perot and Bush supporters, the children were interested to learn the new president has a cat named Socks.

But in Ms. Soverns' view, little else has changed. Nursery children still get excited about school, where everything seems new. That excitement has made for few dull moments for the Linthicum resident over the years.

"The children all have unique personalities and react a little differently," she said. "It's fun to stay with this age group. Everything is exciting to them. They love school."

The school, started by St. Christopher Episcopal Church, has grown from 15 students to 122 and is at capacity. After 20 years, a reunion drew more than 1,000 former students and their parents. A reunion this June to mark the school's 25th anniversary will be open to students and parents from the last five years.

On a recent Monday morning, children waited in anticipation of a visit from Barney, the singing, dancing, purple dinosaur star of a popular children's television show. During playtime, a 5-year-old named Elizabeth appointed herself tour guide and led a visitor to points of interest in the brightly decorated classroom of blocks, crayons, cowboy and Indian figurines and a wooden play house.

"We like to dress up in the dress-up center, and we like to play with play dough," she said. "We do all sorts of things."

Parents have always been a part of the program. On a rotating basis, three parents at a time serve as teacher's helpers, supervising play times, teaching children to write letters, bringing in the daily snack and setting the table.

"You're able to see your child develop," said Kathy Chizmadia, whose 4-year-old son is the family's third child to go through the two-year program for 3- and 4-year-olds. "You don't have to give them 20 questions when they get home."

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