Eight preschoolers gathered in a small classroom, with the alphabet emblazoned on the carpet and rows of blocks lining the walls, at the Eastern Family Resource Center in Baltimore County's Rosedale neighborhood.
The 3- and 4-year-olds, participants in the Even Start Family Literacy Program, formed a circle and listened to teacher outline the day's plans. Afterward, some sang the alphabet, while others played dress-up.
Meanwhile, in a room upstairs, parents practiced reading skills in a countywide initiative aimed at improving child literacy by working with the entire family.
Since its inception in 1990, Even Start has helped more than 1,000 families. More than 100 families are currently enrolled in nine centers around the county, including locations on Painters Mill Road in Owings Mills, at Ateaze Senior Center on Holabird Avenue in Dundalk and at Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex.
"It's really based on the philosophy that the parent is the child's first and best teacher," said Betty Young, coordinator of Baltimore County Public Schools' Office of Alternative Programs, which runs Even Start.
The program gets high marks from participants.
"I have more self-esteem and more confidence in myself," said Aisha Khan, 26, of Rosedale. Khan, who is from Pakistan, said she has seen a marked improvement in her vocabulary since enrolling in the classes at the encouragement of one of her relatives.
Khan's son, Saif, 3 1/2 , is in the pre-K class at the Eastern Family Resource Center. "I've seen a great deal of improvement, and now he's learning so much, too," she said.
Ginita Peay, 22, of Baltimore, is involved with the program with her three children, Quyshay, 8, Michael, 6, and Radazjah, 4. "They always say it's important to read with your child and to let your child read, and my son [Michael] really learned from that," she said.
The program was begun under a federal grant intended to integrate education for young children and their parents. Maryland has 12 Even Start programs, including the one in Baltimore County and two in Baltimore City.
Federal money for the Baltimore County program dried up in 1997, but the county school system has continued to provide funding. The program also relies on grants and an annual read-a-thon fund-raiser called "Reading Makes Cents," which raises money for materials and books.
Participation in Even Start is voluntary, and parents typically hear about the program while enrolled in adult education classes, or through the Department of Social Services. In order to qualify for the program, they must have children age 7 or younger.
"We figure that if we can get them early enough, we won't have to have them on the other end," said Young. "Some of these children would never have had the opportunity to go to early-childhood classes."
The program offers material tailored to the reading level of parents, and a county-approved curriculum for the children. Even Start also provides English language instruction, child-rearing classes and "education to employment" classes which teach job skills.
Even Start also draws on resources from the county's Department of Social Services, the Community College of Baltimore County and the Baltimore County Infants and Toddlers Program.
Parental involvement is an integral part of Even Start. Twice a month, instructional assistants from Baltimore County public schools visit the homes of the families enrolled in the program. The assistants bring games for the families, and help the children and adults with school work.
"A lot of [adults] have had bad experiences with schools, and we're trying to help them see it in a different light," said Deanna Cavagna, a family resource facilitator for Even Start.
The program also works closely with the teachers of children enrolled in the program, coaching them to help parents work with the schools to ensure their children's success.
"It is a very holistic program. It's not a Band-Aid approach. We work together with other agencies to address the entire family," said Kathleen Mitchell, a family resource facilitator for Even Start.
Not all the program's efforts are academic. Each month, for example, Even Start offers theme-based family nights. During these events, Even Start schedules educational activities and distributes door prizes, which usually include educational games.
The activities don't end with the school year. Each summer, Even Start holds a day camp for school-age children at the Eastern Family Resource Center and the Halstead Academy site on Halstead Road in Hillendale. Parents are invited to participate.
"The summer camp is great," said Lillian Boone, an instructional assistant and parent educator. "They have a marvelous time."
Even Start officials and parents agree that the program has positive effects on its participants.
"I have seen that parents gain a better understanding of their role in their children's education," said Mitchell. "[The parents] are empowered by that."
Information: Deanna Cavagna at 410-887-7870 or Kathleen Mitchell at 410-887-7869.