Getting young students ready for school

Judy Centers lay the groundwork for first grade

Friday, July 13, 2007

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Staff Photo by Gary Smith
Cheryl DeAtley, a Judy Center specialist from the Maryland State Department of Education and former coordinator of Charles County Judy Centers, reads a book with Brianna Francisco, left, and Matthew Eaton at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Elementary School Judy Center.

It’s never too early to learn.

That’s the motto three local elementary schools are using as they enroll infants and toddlers into their Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Education Enhancement Programs.

‘‘Our goal is to start early ... and ultimately those children will be ready for first grade when they are old enough,” said Cheryl DeAtley, who was the coordinator of the Charles County Judy Centers since their inception six years ago. On July 1, she became the Judy Centers specialist for all 24 centers across the state.

The three Judy Centers in Charles County — located at C. Paul Barnhart, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd and Eva Turner elementary schools — are funded annually by three individual state grants of $323,000. The centers operate full-time, year-round and are free for children from birth to age 5 who live in Barnhart’s, Mudd’s or Turner’s attendance zones.

The centers are meant to assist at-risk children, who are too often found at Title I schools, DeAtley said.

Barnhart, Mudd and Turner are all considered by the federal No Child Left Behind Act as Title I schools, meaning many students at those schools are failing or at risk of not meeting the state standards due to their economic status. The Title I classification is applied to schools where a high percentage of the students are receiving free or reduced-price meals.

‘‘Low-income children typically start off behind their counterparts when they enter school,” DeAtley said. ‘‘So we try to reach them before they enter school and identify the services that may help them. ... This is laying the groundwork for first grade.”

Judy Hoyer, the late wife of U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), was the coordinating supervisor of early childhood education in Prince George’s County. Before passing away in 1997, Hoyer established an early childhood center at Cool Spring Elementary School in Adelphi offering a range of services — similar to what the Judy Centers across Maryland offer today.

Services provided by the Judy Centers include getting hearing aids if children can’t hear properly, arranging dentist or doctor appointments regardless of whether the children have insurance and providing transportation to appointments.

The centers also hold workshops for parents.

‘‘Any kind of health need, we have someone in the community to turn to,” DeAtley said, recognizing that the Judy Centers would not be as successful without the support and donations from community businesses and organizations.

One success story that DeAtley said remains dear to her heart was when a 3-year-old boy entered the Judy Center, and it was soon determined he was deaf.

‘‘He was very delayed when we met him and so far behind,” she said. But with help from the community, a hearing device and extra tutoring was provided to get the student on track so he would be ready when he entered first grade.

Days after the child received the hearing aid, DeAtley was driving with him to one of his many appointments when he asked, ‘‘Is that the birds chirping?”

DeAtley said that was just one of her many favorite moments at the Judy Centers.

‘‘You really can change lives,” she said.

Changing lives for the better is what the Judy Centers staff has been trying to do for the more than 400 Charles County children enrolled during the 2006-07 school year.

During the 2005-06 school year, the most recent data available, Judy Center participants made 158 visits to dentists and took part in 189 vision and hearing screenings by the Charles County Health Department and 100 vision screenings by the Waldorf Lions Club.

Brianna Francisco, a prekindergarten student at Mudd’s Judy Center, said her favorite thing about the center is learning about the ocean — specifically crabs since they are her favorite animal.

The Mudd Judy Center spent two weeks at the beginning of July on aquatic life, which is why Brianna knows so much about crabs and other ocean animals.

Brianna said she also enjoys reading, which the Judy Center helps her learn to do.

‘‘I like to learn to read the alphabet,” she said.

And thanks to the Judy Center, chances are Brianna will have a very good grasp of reading before she enters first grade.

Karen D’Alessandro, who works at the Mudd center, said she hopes more parents will become aware that the Judy Center is available to them.

‘‘We have to let them know we are here,” she said. ‘‘We are not so much a day care center. We are the ones who supply them with all the programs they need.”

DeAtley describes the Judy Centers as ‘‘one-stop shopping” for all the services and education a parent would need in preparing their child for school.

E-mail Jacqueline Rabe at