Children know it as the "M.E.O.W. Bus," but it has nothing to do with cats.
It's a museum, classroom and playhouse on wheels, a bright blue school bus that makes the rounds year-round at five Annapolis-area public housing neighborhoods, providing education and fun for children ages 3 to 14.
"We just encourage learning," said Margaret Dowsett, assistant program manager for the Museum Education on Wheels (M.E.O.W.). "The program encourages them to think for themselves and validates their creativity."
Every Thursday and Friday, the bus visits the Robinwood, Newtowne, Annapolis Gardens, Obery Court and Eastport public housing developments, providing enrichment for children who mostly attend "alert schools," those with below-average and declining test scores, said Timothy R. Dangel, coordinator of research for the county public schools.
Program manager Terry Marton said M.E.O.W. provides a learning environment for children who typically wouldn't have the chance to visit a museum.
The M.E.O.W. program is run by the nonprofit Chesapeake Children's Museum, with funding from the Annapolis housing authority. It follows the Skill Builders method of teaching, which focuses on reinforcing basic skills.
The program's attraction was apparent the moment the bus arrived on the streets of Eastport one muggy afternoon recently. Children began running behind it, chanting "Meow! Meow!" as it pulled into a parking lot at the Harbor House Recreation Center.
After Marton and Dowsett prepared the games and learning topics for the day, a metal ramp was lowered from the bus and eager children climbed aboard.
Before playing with puppets or working on geography, the children must sign the attendance roster. Even the 3-year-olds give it their best shot.
Developed in March by educators Marton and Dowsett, with facilitator Krista Hamel, the Skill Builders program has received awards from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.
The program's benefits appear to reach into the children's home lives, Dowsett said. Many gain confidence in themselves and in their work, which is reflected when they take work home to show their families, she said.
"You can't have in-depth lessons, but you can do a little bit," said Dowsett, a former chemistry teacher at Anne Arundel's Southern High School.
Dowsett and Marton -- the latter teaches a creative expression class for gifted and talented youngsters at Anne Arundel Community College -- develop many of the lessons and games used on the bus. They focus on activities such as number sequences, spelling and simple arithmetic.
P. Holden Croslan, executive director of the housing authority, believes the program succeeds in part because it appeals to a wide range of ages.
Marton said the number of children who participate in the program, and the number of the parents who stay to watch their kids play, has steadily increased since the bus first hit the streets last summer.
"The trust factor takes a long time, and it takes consistency," Marton said. "Over a period of time, they've learned to trust that we will be here and that they'll be treated the same each time they come."
Consistency, Marton said, helps counteract the unpredictability that many of the children experience day to day at home.
"If it makes kids happy, it's good," said Clarence Bouie, camp counselor at the Harbor House Recreation Center. "Anything that is a learning experience for them is good for them."
Inside, the bus is filled with the work of its students, including colorful paper fish hanging from the ceiling and a reading "tree" fashioned from construction paper and bearing leaves with the names of successful students.
Most of the interior of the bus has been divided into learning areas and stations for math, science, language arts and creative arts. It has children's desks and chairs, and plenty of supplies.
Marton, who views herself not as a teacher but as a "promoter of creativity," often leads activities such as interpretive dancing and skits outside.
The program is "a good idea because a lot of kids in the neighborhood are deprived in their schooling and education," said M.E.O.W. bus driver Donald C. Adams, who lives in the area. For the younger children not enrolled in school, "this gives them a reinforcement of what they're learning and the confidence that they need," he said.