Four-year-old Jerome Williams is one tough kid to reach this morning. He must be nudged onto the yellow school bus. He silently scowls throughout the half-hour ride. He enters his day care, eyes on the floor, the corners of his little mouth turned down.
This is no problem child, say the teachers and aides at Bright Beginnings, a developmental center for homeless children. He simply needs love. That's what he gets.
Bus monitor Linda Goodson caresses Jerome's hand throughout the bus ride and gently tries to coax a word or a smile out of him. "I don't know what he might have gone through last night or at home, so I try to give him a little more love and attention," Goodson said.
Teacher's aide Karen Granton leans down in a corridor to envelop Jerome in a big hug and whisper encouragingly in his ear for a couple of minutes.
Not unusual for Bright Beginnings, a free, full-day preschool program designed to help the District's most vulnerable children, those who live in shelters or in transitional apartments and whose parents cannot afford child care. There are more than 500 such children in the District. Bright Beginnings, which was opened in 1991 by the Junior League with a $200,000 federal Health and Human Services grant, enrolls 92.
Yesterday, program officials announced an expansion that includes a program for infants and toddlers and a modest job training center for some of the children's parents. By early winter, several computer training stations will be used to train six to eight parents in resume writing, word processing and using other software, said social services coordinator Tyese Lawyer.
Children 6 weeks of age to 2 years old began arriving this year. Previously, Bright Beginnings enrolled only 3- and 4-year-olds and served 52 youngsters.
The expansion was made possible by a $300,000 grant from the Freddie Mac Foundation, awarded as part of the organization's goal to strengthen early childhood education opportunities in the District. Previous foundation grants totaling $320,000 paid for the 32-seat school bus that picks up children for preschool and takes them on weekly field trips. Bright Beginnings operates on a $1.4 million annual budget, funded through philanthropic and private donations as well as Head Start and the federal Housing and Urban Development Community Partnership.
A Freddie Mac Foundation executive said yesterday that the work of Bright Beginnings was essential to the growth of children who are at higher risk for learning disabilities, cognitive impairment, language and motor delays and emotional problems.
"These are children whose daily lives are marked by instability and the uncertainty of where they will eat and sleep next," said Maxine B. Baker, the foundation's executive director.
"Play is the work of children. It is critical to their emotional growth," she said. "The magic here is clearly a model to be replicated throughout the city and, indeed, the country."
Bright Beginnings, which opened in the basement of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Shaw, moved to its current location at the Perry School Community Center in Truxton Circle in December. The floors are checkerboards of bright yellow, white and blue tiles. Cutouts of Winnie the Pooh characters and choo-choo trains adorn the walls. The bright, airy classrooms are filled with colorful toys, soft mats, art supplies, books and miniature tables and chairs. Yesterday's menu included oatmeal and bananas for breakfast, and spinach salad plus spaghetti with meat sauce for lunch.
The children also are seen by speech, language and occupational therapists and child psychologists from the Georgetown Child Development Center.
But it's the day-to-day, one-on-one contact that matters the most, Darnella Parker said. Her tiny students call her "Miss DeeDee."
"They see so much, and we don't even know everything that's going on with them," she said. "We just try to keep it loving and understanding. What's important is to say, 'You're special; you're somebody.' We want them to be happy."
CAPTION: Driver Tony Davis lifts a child out of the bus. Bright Beginnings is a preschool for the District's most vulnerable children, such as those living in shelters.
CAPTION: Teacher Martha Kremenak holds Deante Robinson, 1. Children ages 6 weeks to 2 years are among the 92 children enrolled this year at Bright Beginnings.