The 4-year-olds suggest to teacher Rachel Cook, who has a puppet on each hand, that Impulsive Puppy might get Slowdown Snail to come out to play if he chills out a little on the barking. The children sing a snowman song, they learn phonics from the lovable monsters on the CD-ROM, they cut out snowflakes, they volunteer for jobs as line leader or table washer, they count out the days in January.

What's going on in the preschool at Running Brook Elementary is not too different from what's going on in the kindergarten classroom next door. What's different is how the program came to be.

The program owes its success--indeed, its existence--to the industry and determination of Running Brook's administrators, teachers and families. Four years ago, the school applied for, and received, a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education to offer preschool to children who needed it most.

It's not just preschool that first arrived at Running Brook through a grant, but also after-school programs, summer readiness classes for new students, Saturday school, summer camp, parenting classes, English classes for Spanish-speaking parents and literacy programs for children and adults. The money has come from organizations big and small, public and private--such as the United Way of Central Maryland, the Columbia Foundation, Freddie Mac, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and the State of Maryland.

The preschool program is now provided, with Howard County Department of Education funds, at all the county's neediest schools. That's part of the purpose of seeking grants: to try out things that might work, as a dress rehearsal for a full, institutional commitment. And for schools that can't rely on stocked PTA treasuries--such as Running Brook, which has one of the county's poorest populations--there are sometimes few other paths to innovation.

But grant-hunting is not the most efficient process; it's not a simple path, either to get the grant or, in the first place, to learn that it exists. There's no Grant Central principals can turn to: There's the Internet, the grapevine, the letters that fortuitously come to the department or the school.

To get a grant, a school has to submit an often-complicated proposal: Whom is the program going to reach? What do you want to achieve? How will you measure if you're achieving it? What is the budget?

Once the dollars come in, the programs have to be administered and the funds accounted for. A secretary must carefully keep the books to make sure the grant money goes just for the grant program; someone has to write progress reports--with data--for the organization that gave the grant.

At Running Brook, much of the grant work is done by Nancy Berla, whose grandchildren attend the school, and teacher Laura Lee. Before Berla retired, she wrote grants for advocacy organizations and books about parental involvement in schools. Now a full-time volunteer, Berla has helped Running Brook get as much as $80,000 in the last five years and Murray Hill Middle School--where her daughter is a guidance counselor--several thousand dollars.

She knows the acronyms to use in a grant application. She knows to use jargon when applying to the government and a folksier tone for a private foundation. She scours the universe for grants--"At one point," she said, "I wrote to every foundation in and around Baltimore in the foundation directory"--and spends weeks writing them.

(Lest you think Berla's talents are only bookish, check out the seat covers on the little first-grade chairs: She sewed them.)

For the schools that don't have a Nancy Berla, the school district, hoping to make it easier to find grants, has hired a full-time grant coordinator at the central office. Individual schools still will have to write their own proposals, but they'll get advice.

"I think it would be so much easier for focus-school principals if we didn't have to scramble to get those things," said Debbie Drown, who was principal at Running Brook before she took over at a school that doesn't rely on grants, Gorman Crossing Elementary. "It's very time-consuming."

Running Brook finds out early next month if it has won a large state grant, $87,000 a year for three years, to teach reading. Among the activities included: twice-monthly half-day training for teachers; tape recorders that could be sent home so Spanish-speaking parents could hear English being read aloud at home; and buses to take students to the public library.

The school system is swiftly doing its own work to figure out how to better teach children to read. But Principal Marion Miller's 307 students can't wait. "The philosophy of the people here," she said, "is we want to do more, and we want to move quickly."