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Learning before, after bell; Care: The Open Door program, once focused on snacks and playtime, adds reading for pleasure to academic activities.


They rush into Woodbridge Elementary's cafeteria every afternoon, minutes after the final bell at the Baltimore County school -- four dozen or so pupils who are done with their day's classes, but not yet done with learning.

For children enrolled in Open Door's before- and after-school care programs, academic skills -- particularly reading -- are receiving extra attention every day.

Open Door was founded in 1983 by psychologist Jeanne M. Page after she struggled to find child care for her children. But where it once focused almost exclusively on snacks, outdoor play, board games and artwork, learning has become a key element.

Every day, children in the program read for 15 minutes before and after classes. All get the chance to work with a teacher on their homework, and many spend an hour or more each day learning about various topics -- from Groundhog Day to American presidents.

"Our mission is to provide before- and after-school care to working families and try to link between the home and the school day," says Page, executive director of the nonprofit Open Door of Baltimore Inc. "With some children spending three or four hours a day with us, we decided that we should offer more of an academic portion to help that link."

Open Door provides supervision for more than 2,200 children at 23 Baltimore County and 10 Anne Arundel County elementary schools, charging fees of $22 a week for before-school care, $28 after-school, and $45 for both.

It has grown into one of the largest nonprofit providers of child care at area public schools. Over the past two years, it has developed a three-pronged academic component to help improve pupils' academic skills.

"Every year we talk to principals and ask them what we can do for them, and one of the things we've heard recently is that kids need more practice with reading," Page says. "So we decided to make that a mandatory part of the program."

Every morning and afternoon, 15 minutes are set aside for children to "Drop Everything And Read" -- "DEAR" time, a concept also frequently used in many schools.

It doesn't matter whether children read magazines, chapter books or comics -- as long as they're reading. Older children and the adults supervising the program often read to the kindergartners and first-graders.

"I do my homework every day, and then we have the time to Drop Everything And Read," says third-grader Justin Smallwood, 8. "I like spending the extra time learning."

"It's kind of fun having time where we have to read something we like," says Woodbridge fifth-grader Daniel Chiville, 10, looking up from a Spider-Man comic book. "It's not homework, so I like it."

At every Open Door school, children can spend an hour working on their homework in a classroom, with a teacher available to offer assistance.

With some children not being picked up from Open Door until 6 p.m., "it's a big help to parents for their children to at least have started their homework," Page says. "They don't always have to rush home, eat dinner quickly and then fight over homework until bedtime."

The centerpiece of Open Door's new academic effort is its "Camelot Learning" program -- weekly learning units that focus on reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Children learn about Ireland during the week of St. Patrick's Day and the Civil War around Lincoln's birthday.

"The units are designed to tie into the schools' curriculum," says Phyllis J. Burke, an education consultant and former Baltimore County associate superintendent of curriculum. "We wanted to create something that would help these children be more successful in their classes."

At Woodbridge, a half-dozen or so children at a time huddle around Cindy Campbell to learn about the week's Camelot topic. Campbell's sixth-grade daughter, Brandi, is often among the eager learners.

"I like learning about the different things," says second-grader Ronald Hodnett, 7. "Sometimes, I learn about stuff and then when we study it in class, I already know some of the right answers."

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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