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For Disadvantaged Kids, More Than A Babysitter

Freeman said one benefit of having a school-based center is that it gives parents a chance to get to know teachers and administrators, and become familiar with a school building, long before their children start kindergarten. She thinks mothers like Rosa Simon will be more comfortable joining a PTA, for example.

"This encourages parents to stay involved, and we know involved parents have children who are successful," Freeman said.

Teaching Brushing Teeth
Teaching Brushing Teeth
Allison Ribeiro teaches 14-month-old David Mateo Calbo to brush his teeth at the Early Head Start center at Herndon's Clearview Elementary. (Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)

How to Qualify

Early Head Start serves children who are 6 months to 3 years old and whose families are county residents. Acceptance in the program is based on income guidelines set by the federal government. The guidelines are at www.aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/05poverty.shtml.

For more information about the county program, call 703-846-8791 or go to www.fcps.edu/DIS/OECFS/earlyhs/index.htm.

At the new Clearview Elementary center, visitors pass through a "door" of green streamers and enter a hallway decorated with paintings and drawings made by the children.

Inside the two connected classrooms, everything, including sinks and a toilet, has been built in miniature. There are toddler-size tables and chairs, and even small cots for nap time.

Eight children are assigned to each classroom, although not every child is there every day. Each classroom has a teacher and an instructional assistant. A third assistant floats between the rooms, and a nutritional assistant prepares meals, bottles and snacks. Visitors and staff cover their shoes with disposable slippers that help keep the floors dirt-free.

One recent morning, Aaliyah Hilliard, a quiet 2 1/2-year-old in a pink jogging suit, ambled around one classroom. She arranged plastic pots atop a toy stove and picked up the receiver on a toy telephone. As she plucked a storybook from a basket, Freeman plopped down next to her and helped her turn the pages.

"What's this grandpop doing? He's going swimming," Freeman said as she pointed to an illustration.

Unlike kindergarten classes, where teachers follow lesson plans, Early Head Start teachers let each child determine many of the day's activities, Smiley explained. If a child picks up a car, the teachers will play with it. If he's drawn to the crayons, they'll color.

"Here the children lead us, and we follow them," Smiley said.

Smiley's classroom is full of colorful toys, balls, dolls, puzzles and books that vie for the children's attention. There are blocks and crayons and brightly colored foam steps to play on. The walls are covered with photos of the children and large mirrors so the toddlers can watch themselves. Soft music plays in the background.

On a recent afternoon the children and teachers gathered in a circle to spend some time singing with Valerie Carroll, a teaching artist at Wolf Trap who has been visiting the center twice a week.

Carroll sang upbeat, repetitive songs, including "Ring Around the Rosy," with the children, tunes they've learned during earlier visits. Getting a sense of the beat and rhythm will help the children as they learn math, and the lyrics are fun lessons in English, Carroll said.

But the children aren't the only ones who get lessons. Parents work regularly with the teachers and also come together every other month for meetings. During those sessions, they share their experiences and hear from speakers who offer tips on nutrition, job searches or disciplining a child.

Simon said those meetings have provided both helpful information and a support network. "I thought my situation was the worst, but then I met the other parents," said Simon, whose 4-year-old son is in the Head Start program.

Simon said that since Christina started Early Head Start, she's made some changes that she thinks will help her daughter. She's been feeding Christina more fruits and vegetables, at the urging of the teachers. And after she commented on how the baby seemed to love the play areas in the classroom, teachers helped her plan a miniature version in her own apartment. She's also started brushing Christina's teeth, the few there are, because they brush them in school.

Smiley and her colleagues record each child's progress in a daily log, everything from diaper changes to what a child ate to the words he or she spoke. They share it with the parents, who jot down questions or their own observations.

One recent morning, Smiley, pointing to the colorful foam steps, let Simon know that Christina had hit a small milestone. "She climbed three steps today," Smiley said. "That's the first time she's done that."

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