Kindergartners are the big kids at the Northwest Area Early Childhood Learning and Development Center.
The center, which opened last week in the former Campfield Elementary on Alter Avenue, is the first in Baltimore County and one of few in Maryland to provide both educational and social services for young children -- many of them developmentally needy.
The center houses four kindergarten classes, nine pre-K classes, special education classes for 3- and 4-year-olds from the northwest area, part-time services for younger children who may not be developing at a normal pace and a variety of parent-support programs. The youngsters would have attended at least eight other elementary schools.
"We feel that we are at the forefront," said Mary Jacqe Marchione, director of elementary schools for the northwest and the center's creator. "This could become a state model."
In addition to 16 classroom teachers the center has on its staff speech pathologists, occupational and physical therapists and psychologists, all trained to work with young children.
Programs concentrate on identifying physical and mental problems that might inhibit learning, and overcoming other factors that keep youngsters from being ready for school. "We really can make a difference at a young age," said the center's principal, Sue Dingle.
The center also satisfies the county's need for space for more students. The old Campfield building, which housed an alternative middle school program and community programs last year, is supplying 400 additional seats in an area where many elementaries are overcrowded.
The full-day kindergartners are from Milbrook and Bedford elementaries. The pre-K students are from Randallstown, Church Lane, Scotts Branch, Wellwood and Winfield, as well as Bedford and Milbrook. The students stay with youngsters from their home schools. Often the teachers have come from those schools, too.
Because some children live outside the center's neighborhood, transportation has become perhaps the biggest hurdle of the project. Youngsters take the school bus to their home schools, then come to the center by a shuttle staffed by a paid parent helper.
Youngsters in half-day classes are taken to their homes, said the principal, conceding that "we are a nightmare for transportation." The special education classes were formerly housed at Chatsworth Elementary, which until last year was one of the county's five centers for youngsters with disabilities. Some of the children attend three half-day sessions and others five half-day classes.
Also at the center are:
* The Maryland Infant and Toddler Program, which is a joint venture of the schools and county social services. It serves children from birth through age 2 who are considered at risk or whose development is slower than normal, said Thomas J. Stengel, supervisor in the school system's Office of Infants and Toddlers.
* Child Find, one of the county's assessment centers for the federally funded program for children ages 3 and older who may have disabilities and need special education services.
* Day care, with the YMCA running a before- and after-school center for children enrolled in regular education classes.
* Parent services. The center intends to provide guidance and support to parents through the center's resource staff. "Often parents will bring their children to one place and they will find out they need to go to someplace else and someplace else. Parents get terribly discouraged," said Barbara Pavon, a professor of educational administration at Temple University in Philadelphia and a member of the local center's board of directors.
At centers such as northwest's, many of the services for children are at the same place, she said. And parents meet others in similar situations.
"We've got a good start," Ms. Dingle said. "We have a lot of work to do. I think it can be more than good. It can be great."