As classes change at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air on a recent Wednesday, children kiss their mothers good-bye and give them big bear hugs. Then they scamper into a room filled with Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig cutouts -- and their teachers, who are 18-year-old seniors.
The school's child-care development class for 4-year-olds is about to begin.
It's an odd, fun mix of Barney T-shirts and M.R. Ducks jerseys, tempura paints and nail polish, and Legos and prom photos.
"I'm going to miss it next year," says senior Erin Hovel, who will be going to Harford Community College in September.
The high school class is a hands-on, learning experience for the students, explains teacher Charlsie Brooks, who supervises the program.
Some take the elective class for fun, she says. Others sign up because they want to be teachers.
"I just want to make an impression on a kid that will last," says student Rachel Wagman, who is heading to HCC in the fall to take early-childhood education classes.
One morning last week, it was obvious the little ones had formed bonds with the high school students, as they high-fived one another, comfortably snuggled on their laps and asked about the pretty pink nail polish.
"We just had our prom," a senior explains to her curious charge, as she continues reading a book to her.
The teens seem at ease whether they're mixing paint, hugging the children or passing around photos from their big dance.
In the dress-up area, lanky lacrosse players are wearing shower caps and plastic hard hats on their heads, oblivious to any macho images.
"It's been wonderful, watching the older children work with younger children," says Karen Fritz, whose 5-year-old son, Jonathan, is finishing his second year in the program.
For parents, the class has provided an affordable preschool learning experience. Two or three times a week, 3- and 4-year-olds attend the school-within-a-school mornings or afternoons at a cost of $35 a semester.
There is often a waiting list, and interested families should call the school for an application for next year, Mrs. Brooks advises.
Other county high schools -- except for Havre de Grace High and Harford Technical -- offer similar programs at varying prices.
The class drill is the same as in most child-care programs -- free play, activities such as painting and story time, a lesson of the day and snacks. In this class, however, the students have eight teachers, or more.
By the time the 2 1/2 -hour class ends, three different groups of high-school students have come and gone.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group of about 25 students in each class observe or plan for their days as teachers.
The children are used to the transition time, Mrs. Brooks says, as the buzzer sounds and the students grab their books and -- off to another class and a new, chattering group arrives.
A little boy who has been hanging onto senior Jason Parks quickly latches onto another student, John Topfer, during the switch.
It's not unusual to have boys in the program, Mrs. Brooks says. They make up about one-fifth of the child-care students, she says.
"It's really no big deal being a guy in the class," Jason says with a grin, as he helps a little boy paint a purple man with big hair.
Both Jason and John are planning careers as elementary school teachers, they say.
"I have really liked the class," says Jason, who will continue his interest in working with children at Towson State University while he plays lacrosse there.
Fellow students talk about his ability to make the little children feel comfortable.
"He's always their best friend," says Willow Waldrop. "The shy ones like him."
To John, teaching elementary school is an avocation that's even more important than a salary.
"Working with kids is more rewarding than the pay," he says earnestly. Also a lacrosse player, he will be going to HCC and then to Villa Julie College.
During the class, Mrs. Brooks often beams while surveying the two groups. "I never know what the kids are going to do, big or little," says the motherly teacher, who has been a home economics instructor for 22 years.
Regardless, she's proud of them, especially her seniors.
"They're ambassadors for teens and give parents a good impression of the school."