For 16 years, Toni Ungaretti reached out from her classroom at Dundalk Community College into many corners of the child-care community -- guiding day-care providers, training teachers, working throughout the state to make day care rewarding for its providers and safe, friendly and stimulating for children and parents.
Last year she moved uptown to the Johns Hopkins University, where she's helping graduate students -- many of whom are changing careers -- find their way into teaching.
Of the thousands of Marylanders who made their living in child care in the last decade, few have found their opinions--ot their time--so sought after.
"Everybody wants her on the board," Says Ann Feldman of the Maryland Committee for Children. "It's what she knows and how nice she is to work with and how good she is" that puts Toni Ungaretti in demand.
Nevertheless, Ms. Ungaretti still stares at her name on her office door at Hopkins' School of Continuing Studies and laughs about how green she is.
"It was always a dream of mine to be a university professor -- when I was about 50 maybe," she says. At 43, Toni Ungaretti has beaten her dream.
"I've always liked Hopkins, but I never envisioned me here," she says over lunch at the Hopkins Club. "I always thought I would be at Dundalk forever."
Ms. Ungaretti is not a rookie at Hopkins. She's been teaching there part-time since 1977.
"The students absolutely love her," says Dr. Ralph Fessler, who hired Ms. Ungaretti to coordinate Hopkins' Master's of Arts in Education program. "She is one of the most popular teachers. She gets rave reviews."
Popularity aside, moving from teaching at a community college to teaching at a major university is unusual, Ms. Ungaretti feels.
"Universities tend not to be interested in community college people. They feel we're not on equal planes. The research orientation of the university is not the orientation of the community college, which is teaching."
For Ms. Ungaretti, the transition was as much personal as professional. "The hardest thing to do was to leave those people," she says of her colleagues and students at Dundalk, and of the community.
"I have a great fondness for the people in Dundalk. They are wonderful, warm people who wanted the best for their children, who looked to education as a way to help their children," many of whom were the first in their families to attend college.
"I find the people here [at Hopkins] are different. Throughout their lives, they had opportunities. They have the resources, the experience. They would make it whether I was here or not. At Dundalk, when you taught people, . . . you could help them make a difference. It really awes you to see how much respect there is for education. That's the reason why I stayed so long."
That, and the fact Dundalk seemed familiar. "I grew up in a mill town outside of Pittsburgh, working- class. Dundalk felt like home," says Ms. Ungaretti, who lives in Bel Air with her husband, Bob, and two children, Ryan, 10, and Jan, 20, a junior at Hopkins.
Leaving Dundalk was a "very difficult decision" for her, says Dr. Jim Bruns, her supervisor in the social sciences department for many years.
He credits her with making Dundalk's on-campus child-care center what it is today -- a teaching tool for early childhood education majors and a service to the community. "It was her ideas and philosophy that tended to structure that center. Toni was the driving force behind that," says Dr. Bruns, now the director of instruction at Carroll Community College.
She expanded the center from a preschool to a full-day program. With money from an area financial institution, she added a before- and after-school program for youngsters from nearby elementary schools, even providing them with bus transportation.
As she improved the center, Ms. Ungaretti also built the early childhood curriculum, the job she was hired to do. From four students when she arrived, "It grew to be a fairly large department," she says. "I would average between 70 and 100 early childhood majors. The students did well when they went to four-year schools."
From these beginnings at Dundalk, Toni Ungaretti has cut a wide swath through the child-care community, which includes tens of thousands of people -- from family providers caring for a few children in their homes to the bureaucrats and politicians distributing the millions of federal dollars coming into Maryland for child care.
"Before anyone even knew what a family day-care provider was," Ms. Ungaretti says, she saw the need to organize the providers in southeastern Baltimore County and to work toward making child care more of a profession. Through state and county organizations, she's helped revise the state regulations governing child care and write grants for money to train family day-care providers.
She worked closely with the Baltimore County Child Care Committee, which "has brought a lot of visibility to child care," she says.