Four-year-old Zoe Jackson was deeply engrossed in building a Lego house with a classmate at the Dasher Green Head Start Center. Next to her, teacher Mary Valmas talked with Zoe and others, weaving a little instruction about the color orange into the conversation.

Soon, Zoe moved with her classmates to a colorful rug to hear a story featuring the letter F, and she volunteered that "fish" starts with "f." At lunchtime, she deftly used a knife and fork under her teacher's gentle guidance to eat meatloaf, green beans and mashed potatoes.

At 12:15, as most of the children lined up for the bus home, Zoe took a short walk down the hall to another classroom, where she joined a new set of classmates for an afternoon of stories, songs and shapes with two Dasher Green pre-kindergarten teachers.

More than two hours later, she joined her older brothers from the Dasher Green school campus next door for the trip home.

It's a full day for a 4-year-old, albeit one who's already printing her name and simple words. But Zoe's early school career represents a huge endeavor for her family and a host of state, local and public school officials, all trying to craft a system that develops the promise of needy students.

"All the research has shown, the earlier the children get academic intervention, the more successful they will be," said Dasher Green Elementary Principal Sue Goglia.

If the initiative works, it could help produce a dramatic turnaround at Dasher Green Elementary, a school that embodies the stubborn achievement gap in Howard County. In the past, Dasher Green, located in the village of Owen Brown, has struggled with a high suspension rate, chronic absenteeism and meager parental involvement. Nearly a quarter of its students receive subsidized meals, and the correlation of poverty to student performance is evident in standardized test scores that bump along the bottom in local and state comparisons.

Making a Parent Connection

When Goglia took over as principal in 2000, she quickly started knocking on doors, coaxing support and volunteers from businesses; the Columbia-based nonprofit Horizon Foundation, which promotes health and wellness; the Owen Brown Interfaith Center; and county government.

"It wasn't really enough," she said. "We were meeting the needs of individual children, but I needed to get to the community, to parents before their kids came to school.

"We're kidding ourselves if we think we can do it without making sure parents have their needs met."

One of those parents who was eager to connect with the school was 32-year-old Diana Insula, who wanted more for her four children than she had growing up.

"I'm from a poor family, and my mom seemed to always have to struggle to just take care of me," Insula said. In Kingston, Jamaica, her mother worked a series of low-skill, low-wage jobs and sent Insula, who was chronically ill with sickle cell disease, to live with faraway relatives for years while she was a live-in housekeeper.

"I was never stable in one place for very long," Insula said.

After graduating from high school in Jamaica, Insula arrived in the United States in 1990 with her firstborn son through the sponsorship of family members already in the country. She settled in Baltimore and quickly found work. But she also acquired an abusive boyfriend and gave birth to her second son in a women's shelter. In 1994, Insula moved to Howard to escape her boyfriend's violent behavior, and here, she said with a wide smile, she found safety and a second chance.

With the guidance of the local Childcare Resource Center, Insula got a state license in 1995 to open a home day-care business. With money from that and a weekend job as a security guard, she saved enough in two years to buy a three-story townhouse near Dasher Green Elementary.

Insula delighted in how Zoe, the third of her four children, had quickly absorbed the preschool academics she taught her in spare moments. But she knew her daughter soon would need more.

"For her social skills, she needed to be out of [my] day care, out of the house," Insula said. "She was with me all the time. The sharing -- she wasn't doing too well with that. She thinks she should be in control."

Last year, Insula enrolled her daughter in a child care center at Howard Community College. Then disaster struck with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon. The economic shock waves hit Insula's day-care clients, and many of them lost their jobs. Insula's income plummeted, forcing her to take Zoe out of the HCC program.

"It was so hard for Zoe," Insula said. "She was finally learning the social skills she needed to have. She had made friends; she loved the teacher. When she comes back home, she wants to be the boss again."

Last spring, Insula dropped by Dasher Green Elementary, intent on enrolling Zoe in Dasher Green's pre-kindergarten class. But school officials said Zoe didn't need preschool, compared with other neighborhood children whose academic skills lagged.

"This frustrated me," Insula said. "I just come home tearing my hair out."

Judy Center Opens Doors

Unbeknown to Insula, big changes already were afoot at Dasher Green. The school was preparing for the debut of its Judy Center, an ambitious state-funded program named for the late wife of U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.

Judith P. Hoyer was supervisor of early childhood education for the Prince George's County public schools until her death from stomach cancer in 1997. The early childhood and family learning center she established in 1993 at Adelphi's Cool Spring Elementary School has become the model for 24 Judy Center programs established in 21 Maryland jurisdictions since last year.

Tracy Jones, Howard's instructional facilitator for early childhood education, recalled her scouting visit to the Adelphi facility, where there were programs for young children, a staff facilitator for non-English speaking families, classes for adult family members and even baby-sitting.

"It was a very comprehensive, service-oriented program, and we liked what we saw," she said.

Jones teamed up with Goglia and other school officials to seek a state grant to launch Howard's first Judy Center program last April. The initiative is expected to receive $322,000 a year through 2005 to serve 500 preschool children in the Dasher Green attendance area and their families.

The goal of having children come to school "ready to learn" means instruction must begin early.

This year, the money is helping needy families pay for day care, hire staff for a second pre-kindergarten class at Dasher Green, provide a resource center with school supplies that families and child care workers can use, pay for after-school events, form parent support groups and offer additional training for professionals.

"We will touch the lives of these families in one form or another," said Judy Center program director Anne Yenchko.

Judy Center officials also are encouraging, and in some cases requiring, local day-care centers and home child care providers to seek national or state accreditation.

"You can maintain best practices standards," Yenchko said of the accreditation process. "It's raising the level of quality of preschool education."

The program tackles the ambitious goal of coordinating efforts of different school and child care agencies. For instance, it wants day-care center operators and preschool teachers to develop complementary curriculum and classroom goals.

"Everyone's like different balloons floating in the sky," said Debbie Yare, program manager for the county's Child Care Resource Center. "We never really worked off the same page."

It also hopes to encourage a partnership between Dasher Green Elementary and the neighborhood's new Head Start Center, which already has loaned classroom space to Dasher Green for its pre-kindergarten program.

But Tristan Rynn, director of Lornwood Day Care and Gifted Center, said the Judy Center effort so far has "fallen short" on formal coordination. And Head Start Director Betty King said Dasher Green and Head Start teachers aren't planning their preschool curricula together, even though they teach in the same building.

"It's in the works," she said. "It's not hard; it's involved. You have to think about it. You have to take time to decide how best you work for both parties."

Judy Center officials plan to track kindergartners through second grade to see if their efforts yield stronger student achievement. Goglia believes the program is one of Dasher Green's best shots at alleviating the effects of poverty and family stress that can drain children's success.

"I'm confident we can address [the impact of] some of the issues," she said. "I can't change the issues. I can't change poverty."

Insula is grateful for Judy Center officials' help in arranging a full-day of school for Zoe. But she worries about her going to just a half-day of kindergarten next year and wonders whether she can afford high quality after-school care.

"When I get to that point, I guess I'll start asking those questions to hear the answers that I'm hoping for," she said.

Zoe Jackson's name card identifies her cubbyhole at the Head Start Center.Four-year-old Zoe Jackson, who is learning about meals at school, helps her mom, single parent Diana Insula, with dinner in the family's townhouse in Columbia.Zoe focuses on a Lego project at the Dasher Green Head Start Center.Jovon Hall, 13, lends a hand while mother checks on Jada Jackson, 1.Anne Yenchko, director of the Judy Center, expects its programs to touch lives.