It's no ordinary day at Windsor Farm Elementary School. Jake Dove, Rachel Yff and Todd Sackett are celebrating their birthdays with a cake, a clown's magic show and over 30 friends singing "Happy Birthday." Afterward, children run around the cafeteria, waving balloons in the air.
School usually isn't this much fun, but in Windsor Farm's day-care program, having a good time is part of the curriculum. Students at the Anne Arundel County school play kickball and do arts and crafts, burning off a day's worth of childhood energy.
"We have children who cry when they have to go home," said Donna Yff, the mother of two children and director at Windsor Farm's program, which is run by the county Department of Recreation and Parks. "It's so logical: Where better for children to go after school than to an empty school building?"
The concept seems to be working.
With the growing numbers of single parents and working women, more and more schools are offering day-care programs for school-age children, some open both before and after school. Every jurisdiction in the Baltimore-Washington area has a program, and they are either operating or being developed in the other Maryland countie s.
No one keeps statistics on the number of children in these programs, but the number of day-care slots available in Maryland has more than doubled over the past eight years. In 1982, there were 4,250; now there are about 11,500, according to the Governor's Office of Children, Youth, and Families.
But demand far exceeds the spaces available, and the push is on for expansion of in-school day care. As part of the effort, Gov. William Donald Schaefer soon will dedicate new resource centers in Baltimore, Prince George's County and Hagerstown that will train day-care staff, help parents seeking care and collect data on day care.
The push, however, must contend with a rise in enrollment across the state that is putting a crimp on in-school day-care programs. With more students, the number of classrooms available for in-school care dwindles.
Day care in school addresses the problem of "latchkey kids," who go home to an empty house after school. Parents embrace the idea, since they don't have to pick up their children and take them to a day-care center. And in-school care gives children who might otherwise spend the afternoon sitting in front of a television something more productive to do.
"Parents have become aware of the difficulties of latchkey children," said Nancy Grasmick, special secretary for the Governor's Office of Children, Youth, and Families.
At Franklin Elementary School in Baltimore County, a private company called Playkeepers provides day care for about 40 students. Zora Javaheri, director of the center's kindergarten program, said her goal was to provide students with entertaining and engaging activities. Still, she said, students get to do their own thing.
"They have to have their own free playtime," said Mrs. Javaheri, whose day-care room is colorfully decorated by the students and boasts a computer, board games and art supplies.
Anne Arundel County initiated in-school day care in seven schools this year as a pilot project in response to Mr. Schaefer's request last year for a program from each of the state's counties.
Now, with 117 students enrolled countywide, Anne Arundel is looking to expanding the program to include four more schools next year, with an aim of reaching 18 by 1995, said Tim Chesnutt, coordinator of the county's after-school programs.
At Windsor Farm, one of Anne Arundel's centers, 37 students stay after school and 24 also get care for about an hour before school begins.
"I saw that parents should have day care that was affordable . . . and safe," said Joseph LoCascio, the school's principal. "By providing this stability for them, the kids are happier, and the parents are relieved of worrying about what their kids are going to do for a couple hours."
Mr. LoCascio's cooperation with the program was essential to its success, say members of the Windsor Farm day-care staff. Without a principal's approval, in-school centers simply cannot get the school space they need.
Parents also play an important role. Usually, parents' groups are consulted first to see if there is a demand for day care. If the response is positive, a county or private agency will complete the arrangements for staffing a center and developing its programs, in consultation with parents. At Windsor Farm, for instance, parents have asked for more instruction in music and dance.
"I think it's much better than dropping him off at a sitter's home," said Mike Gould Sr. of his son, Mike Jr. Mr. Gould said he has seen an improvement in his son's academic performance because Windsor Farm's program allows children to do their homework if they choose.
The popularity of these programs has led to growing pains.