As Silvia Bowles held open a book called Hot Dogs, 6-year-old Eric Moody read out loud, pronouncing each word slowly and clearly. Four days a week after school, the Swansfield Elementary School first-grader heads to the Community Learning Center in the school's media center.
He started attending when he was in kindergarten, and he looks forward to his time at the center, from 3:10 p.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. "We do fun stuff," he said.
And he is getting valuable homework help. "Last year, he couldn't read, but now he's doing very well," said Bowles, who has been with the center for two years. "He wants to learn, that's the best thing."
About 25 students, in kindergarten through seventh grade, were sitting at long tables, working quietly on their own or with adults.
The center, one of five throughout the county, offers after-school supervision, help with homework and activities such as learning chess or putting on a play. And it is free to parents.
A sixth center will open at the end of next month in the new Tiber-Hudson senior apartment development in Ellicott City, said Patricia Branner-Pierce, the program director.
The centers hold a combined total of about 125 students, and the new one will add an additional 25 slots. But Branner-Pierce said the waiting lists are so long that capacity would have to double for every child on the lists to get into the program.
The program is so popular that, once students get in, they typically stay all the way through elementary school, and sometimes beyond that, she noted.
Parents have to sign a contract stating they will support the program and pick up their children on time. Kids are taught to follow the "six P's." They must be proud, productive, persistent, prepared, polite and prompt. They cannot play outside until their homework is done.
Eric's sister, third-grader Natasha Hage, finished her homework recently with no help. "Sometimes I have hard homework and I don't get what to do, and they help me with it," she said. Since the weather was cold, she could not play outside, but she seemed content to sit and color. "If you're done, you can either read or draw a picture," she said.
The centers were established in 1986, when Jean Louis, now a community outreach specialist with the school system, began tutoring in a community room at the Roslyn Rise apartments in Columbia, said Branner-Pierce. "Before you knew it, kids were coming," she said. Carole MacPhee of the Columbia Housing Corp. helped create a more formal program "for latchkey kids to have a place to go," Branner-Pierce said.
The first three centers, with Lynn Newsome as director, were in the Roslyn Rise and Rideout Heath apartment complexes, and at the community center near Swansfield Elementary School. About 10 years ago, that center moved to the school.
Within a few years, two more centers had opened - in Stevens Forest and in the Guilford Gardens apartments, both in Columbia. "The idea is for us to be in a location where the children can walk from school," said Branner-Pierce. "We are in, basically, communities that have a high need, and we just support them in any way we can."
The centers, funded by the Columbia Housing Corp., are considered school programs and are run in accordance with school guidelines, said Branner-Pierce.
Andrea Wilson, the program's Swansfield site coordinator, said she works closely with the school to "reinforce what the students are learning in class." Nearly all the students in the program attend Swansfield Elementary, but others are welcome if they can get there, she said. Accordingly, a couple of students attend Harper's Choice Middle School and a couple attend Longfellow Elementary School.
The ratio of adults to students is 1 to 10, but more adult help comes in all the time. Members of the Council of Elders teach chess every other week; the Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts is organizing a production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which will be performed in April; and high school students come in to tutor.
One former student, Nicole Brown, became a tutor and is majoring in elementary education at Bowie State University, said Branner-Pierce. She is scheduled to give a speech at the program's annual banquet May 21 at the Spear Center.
One of the tutors is Lauren Simenauer, 17, a senior at Centennial High School. She said she began volunteering at Swansfield last school year because she needed the service hours so she could join the National Honors Society. This year, she is president of her school's Honor Society and no longer has to put in the hours. But she enjoys it so much that she keeps returning, usually Tuesday afternoons.
"At first, I was a little reluctant," she acknowledged. "It seemed like it would be such a chore. But it turned out to be such a rewarding experience."