Amid the paints, building blocks and other trappings of early childhood education, a dozen 4year olds are making history in eastern Baltimore County.
For the first time, the Baltimore County school system is operating a prekindergarten program in a private church-affiliated day care center. And the state is paying for it.
Most of the youngsters start their day at Hopewell Day Care Center in Mars Estates well before the prekindergarten class convenes at 8:45 a.m. But when school is over at 11:15 a.m., they don't have to go anywhere. They're already there.
Their teacher, Kim Huber, is on the move, however. She teaches an afternoon prekindergarten class in a traditional setting at Sandalwood Elementary School.
The unusual arrangement is part of a state drive to help working parents by giving their youngsters a full day in a school-like setting. It also helps the county, which often doesn't have the space in its crowded elementary schools for preschool programs.
All but two of the prekindergartners are also enrolled in the day care center. The county provides the teacher and an assistant for the morning program. Parents pay for the rest of the day.
Because the program didn't start until midyear, and then was beset by snow and ice closings, the children are still adjusting.
"These children have been in day care; they are used to the playtime," Ms. Huber said. "Getting used to a new teacher is what we're working on now."
There are other things to get used to in the more structured world of real prekindergarten, such as raising their hands when they want to talk, listening to the teacher and to their friends, working at assigned tasks, and following directions.
Ms. Huber and her teaching assistant, Carol Zukus, follow the county's prekindergarten curriculum, "but I pick and choose" from it, Ms. Huber said.
"It's a nice transition for them," said Robin Waters, the day care center director. As a sign of the program's success, she said, the children "were really upset when they could not stay on the prekindergarten side" in the afternoon.
The prekindergartners generally agreed they "like" school, though they didn't offer specifics. Matthew Rosenfeld said he was learning "to listen so I can do what Miss Huber tells me to do."
The county is opening another day care-based prekindergarten this week at Creative Learning and Child Care Center on Wise fTC Avenue in Dundalk, with youngsters who would have attended Sandy Plains Elementary School if there had been space for them.
The link between prekindergarten programs and existing child care is what won the arrangement its $60,000 state grant. Through several pilot programs, the Maryland State Department of Education is responding to a realization that "half-day programs are not meeting the needs of working parents," said JoAnne Carter, chief of language development and early learning.
Baltimore and Harford counties are the first in the state to put prekindergarten programs in day care centers, she said.
The arrangement allows crunched-for-space Baltimore County schools to offer prekindergarten to 40 children who would have been shut out otherwise. Although the county has 113 prekindergarten sessions, about 300 children remain on waiting lists, according to Clay Myers, supervisor of early childhood education.
The state provided enough money for the teachers and the supplies.
The state's grant also provided stipends for the day care centers, which had extra space. The prekindergarten occupies about half of the Hopewell center's large, main room in the mornings. Ms. Huber and Ms. Zukus have put up a divider to reduce the noise and the distraction for their students.
"There is a dire need for the space. We were able to eliminate their waiting lists," said the Rev. Isaiah Hill, pastor of First Baptist Church on Hopewell Road, which has operated the center for eight years. "We were a perfect spot."