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Teeming with toddlers


Raising her voice to be heard over the gurgling, crying and laughing of two dozen little kids, April Snyder explains why she likes Howard County: Everywhere she goes, she sees parents with toddlers.

It's not selective vision. It's reality.

No other county in the state has a higher percentage of children younger than 5, according to new census data. Of Howard's residents, 7.4 percent fall into this age group, compared with 6.7 percent for the state. In Elkridge, where Snyder lives, one in 10 people isn't old enough for kindergarten.

This youth phenomenon is a headache for officials charged with planning new schools, a problem for parents looking for child care and a dream come true for residents who want to live in a community of families.

Even those aware of the wave of youth were taken aback by the numbers.

"That's amazing," said Cathy Hudson, whose Elkridge church is trying to expand its overflowing day care and nursery school.

"My take on it is it's a combination of factors," she added. "You have the new houses that certainly cater to families - the larger homes with four or five bedrooms - and also the quality of the schools. Word gets out."

Not surprisingly, education is the pivotal issue in the public life of Howard, where nearly 30 percent of the population is younger than 18, compared with about 26 percent for the state. Politicians and educators have raced to open 22 schools in the past decade, barely keeping pace with an unrelenting baby boom.

And while some parents worry about slots in kindergarten for their soon-to-be school-age children, others fret about a worrisome shortage of child care.

The state's Child Care Administration is urging the opening of more day care centers in the county because the 13,500 slots provided by the community's 139 facilities and 628 licensed day care homes aren't enough. Care for infants is especially hard to come by.

And the county Department of Recreation and Parks can't add children's programs fast enough: Eleven sessions of preschool gymnastics offered this spring and summer filled in the first week of registration.

"It's just a very strong family-oriented area," said Diane Huss, marketing manager for The Mall in Columbia, which draws 300 kids to its Thursday morning children's activities.

The profusion of families presents a problem for the school system. Administrators will soon have to find a place for the growing number of kids younger than age 5 - 18,200, according to the last census - most of whom will receive public education. In 1990, census workers counted 15,200 younger than age 5 in Howard.

"Almost every school I see has one of those portable classrooms attached to them," said Columbia resident Bill O'Hare, a demographer with the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. "Because the under-5 population is so big, that means that problem is going to get worse before it gets better."

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard schools, said officials plan to build two elementary schools in the next five years to ease crowding. Elementary enrollment hit 20,700 last fall.

Because families are continually moving into the county, she said, it's unclear whether the building plans will be sufficient when the under-5 group enters school. Education officials have been predicting a decline in elementary school enrollment by fall 2002, but now they wonder if those projections will be proven wrong.

"It doesn't appear to be dropping off," Caplan said.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, thinks leaders should ponder the implications.

"We'll have to take a look at the long-term impact of so many young people living in Howard County," he said.

O'Hare thinks youth is good for a community, despite the strain on infrastructure. It's easier to recruit businesses - and more families - to the area, he said.

"Having a lot of young kids is a sign of vibrancy and vigor," he said.

There's vigor to spare when the MOMS Club of Elkridge runs its monthly meetings, each an hourlong example of planned chaos. Toddlers dashed back and forth last week in Elkridge Baptist Church's fellowship hall as their mothers talked about baby sitters, field trips and the rapid growth of the 3-year-old group for stay-at-home parents.

"We're up to 72 members now," said Snyder, co-president of the club, mother of two and a speaker used to giving reports over the cacophony of little voices.

Her club is one of at least seven in Howard for parents of small children, said Debbie Yare, program manager of the Howard County Child Care Resource Center. And that doesn't begin to count the informal play groups springing up around the county.

Howard County's fast development - largely in the form of single-family houses - partly explains the growing baby population. Recently built homes have drawn young couples looking to start families.

"When we first moved into the community, there were no kids," said Trina Wilson, who lives in a new subdivision in Elkridge with her husband and 1-year-old son. "Now we're all having children."

The youth population appears to be gaining on the adults in some areas. In the census tract that includes Columbia's newest village, River Hill, 42 percent of the residents are younger than 18.

Feeling the full weight of that statistic is the Columbia Gym's nursery, tucked into the River Hill Village Center. Of all Columbia Association day care centers, "we're the busiest," said manager Sarina Grewal. Employees usually care for more than 50 children between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. while their parents work out, take yoga classes or just sit and enjoy the temporary peace and quiet.

"These appointments have to be made a week in advance: That's how busy we are," Grewal said.

But the activities available for children in the county seem endless, parents say. Holding his 2 1/2 -year-old son after a sing-along at the mall last week, Columbia resident Chris Presley recited a list of possibilities, from playgrounds to public pools.

"As a parent, I can't imagine living any other place," he said.

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