Nicole Halvorson wasn't out looking for information about the local schools. Eventually, her son Hunter will be a student at Edgewater Elementary; for now the 18-month-old was struggling just to get out of his stroller on their weekend trip to the mall.

But the schools were out looking for her.

A small squadron of guidance counselors from Anne Arundel County schools had set up shop in the food court of Annapolis Mall. They caught Halvorson's eye, and soon her shopping expedition had turned into a discussion on day care, play groups and early childhood education. She walked away a little wiser, armed with brochures about various community and school programs.

This is how the county's guidance counselors have been spending their Saturdays over the past month as part of a program attempting to reach out to families that haven't necessarily been reaching out to them.

"If I could only get parents to know all the stuff we have," said Donna Bagley, a counselor at Northeast High School, standing at a table laden with school calendars, college catalogues and literature on mental health and child development. "A guidance department is more than where you go to fill out your class schedule."

Across the country, many school officials have decided they can no longer rely on newsletters and PTA meetings alone to give parents information about what their children are learning, and they're taking more aggressive steps to reach out and engage families in the programs and activities of their local schools.

In Anne Arundel, school officials decided this year to try this strategy in one of the last, central community forums: the shopping mall. "It's where the people are," Bagley said.

The program has been hugely successful, they say. Although this Saturday will be their last at the mall, they will set up tables this winter at Marley Station Mall and perhaps return to Annapolis Mall soon.

The mall is where they find grandparents who are curious to know what's going on in the schools these days, mall employees who want to know how to get their GEDs, immigrants trying to find out how to improve their English. The guidance counselors--who staff the tables in shifts of three to five--have answers for them all.

But mostly, it's where they find the parents. Heather Bachman, a counselor at George Cromwell Elementary School, said schools have a hard time drawing the increasing number of working parents into the schools--they'd rather spend their downtime at home with their children rather than in parent-teacher conferences.

Judy Jacobs, the counselor at Brock Bridge Elementary, said some parents are just too shy to call the school for information. Or they don't know exactly what they're looking for.

That was the case for the family from Shady Side that came through the mall last Saturday. They didn't come looking for assistance, but they found it anyway.

After Diane Finch, the county's coordinator of guidance and counseling approached them, they acknowledged that, yes, as a matter of fact, they did need some help.

Their daughter, a third-grader, was having a hard time learning to read. They had tried to get her into tutoring but couldn't afford it.

"I'm frustrated," said her father. "I don't know how to help her."

Finch made an executive decision: This family would get one of the scholarships that Sylvan Learning Centers was extending to Arundel schools for reading instruction.

She scribbled down some information on a note pad and handed it to the parents--go back to your guidance counselor and mention my name, mention this program.

Next, it was a teenage girl and her mother. The girl, in bell-bottoms and braces, kept moving, but Shirley Stein, a counselor from Chesapeake Senior High, caught the mother's attention with a display on SAT and PSAT applications. Finch moved in and engaged the teenager, who attends a west county high school.

"Who's your guidance counselor?" Finch asked.

"I don't know," said the girl, looking elsewhere. "She's got big hair."

Finch knows. "Well, you're going to take these in to her and tell her you're signing up for the PSATs. . . ."

Finch got the girl talking about college. The girl is quick to say that she will "have to" go to a two-year college because of her learning disability, attention-deficit disorder. But Finch told her that's not necessarily the case. "Tell your guidance counselor Mrs. Finch said you need to be exposed to Expand"--a software program that categorizes colleges by the special programs they offer, including those for students with disabilities.

Another family came along, again lured by the displays about SAT and PSAT schedules. The counselors chatted with the mother and son and quizzed the sophomore to make sure he's signed up for the next round of test-taking.

Then the mother turned to Pat Manns, a Crofton Middle School counselor. "I'm trying to complete a degree," the mother said. They draw her over to a stack of Anne Arundel Community College course catalogues and enrollment forms.

But that wasn't all. "I have a daughter in eighth grade who wants to go into cosmetology," she added. They told her about the county's high school vocational and technical education programs.

"So we did three things for one family today," Manns said later.