The National Security Agency -- that name conjures up images of concrete barriers, fences with barbed wire, security guards and impenetrable buildings.
But on Monday, when a new group of pint-sized civilians arrive on the sprawling campus, they'll find a facility that's anything but typical NSA. In fact, the brand new, 18,500-square-foot facility is filled with colorful toys, games and tiny furniture. It even has toilets that stand about 12 inches off the ground.
After a decade of planning and pushing by parents, the NSA will open an on-site day-care center -- the largest licensed facility in Maryland -- to serve as many as 300 children, ranging from six weeks to five years old.
During a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the facility yesterday, Vice Adm. J.M. McConnell, the NSA's director, said he believes on-site day care is "the wave of the future."
"More than 50 percent of the work force is made up of women and by the end of the decade, more than 50 percent of NSA's work force will be women," said the admiral. "If all these women are in the work force, someone has got to take care of the children.
"I'm a strong believer in the unity of the family. I also believe in the unity of the NSA family. And this is a way we can do both," he said.
The center, which will be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., will be operated by Children's World Learning Centers, Inc., one of the largest child-care providers in the country. Children's World, based in Golden, Colo., beat out four other bidders for the project. The NSA facility, located on Fort Meade grounds near the agency's main complex, is one of the largest of Children's Worlds' 500 centers across the country.
NSA officials selected Children's World based on the quality of its program, which focuses on "child development," rather than baby-sitting, NSA Spokeswoman Judith Emmel said. Other factors considered were the cost to the user, cost to the government and the design of the building.
Duane V. Larson, president of Children's World, said the company's philosophy is to provide quality day care that focuses on educational activities. Families should have different options available so they can choose what's right for them, he said.
One parent, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said she has two children in home day care in Columbia. She has enrolled her three-year-old in the NSA center because she wants a more stimulating environment for him, and plans to move her nine-month-old into the center at some later date.
"I've been involved with this from the ground up," said the woman, who added she started lobbying for on-site day care long before she had children. "I have a lot of confidence in this program."
The woman said an NSA employees' organization, called the Children's Development Center Association, played a central role in pushing for on-site day care. Many people have been involved with the project for 10 years, she said.
The center, a joint venture between the NSA and Children's World, will be supported primarily by the fees parents pay, which range from $132 a week for infants and toddlers to $80 a week for five-year-olds. NSA will continue to cover the facility's mortgage, utilities and fire insurance. Children's World has a lease agreement with the Department of the Army for use of the two-acre site.
The all-brick center, which includes 22 classrooms, cost about $2 million to build, which was covered by Children's World. Although the planning took years, construction of the facility moved quickly, Mr. Larson said. The NSA broke ground in January, and the facility was completed this week.