It is the perfect "rec room." There is a pingpong table, foosball, a mini-computer lab, shelves, art supplies and games, and a dozen friends to play with.
For 13 Ellicott Mills Middle School youths, this room is an after-school home - one they prefer to being home alone or, even worse, with a baby sitter.
The "New Student Union" is an after-school enrichment program designed specifically for middle-schoolers. It is being offered in nine schools through the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.
"We found that anything that was associated with baby-sitting, middle-schoolers weren't interested," said Barbara Moore, who manages the department's Recreational Licensed Child Care program.
To make the program attractive to preteens, Department of Recreation and Parks employees added touches such as a boombox cabinet built and decorated to look like a jukebox.
"What makes this program unique is that the teens who are in the program buy into the program," Moore said. A teen board is at each site so schoolchildren who attend set up the activities and events themselves.
County parents whose children attended after-school enrichment in elementary school contacted Moore about continuing the program for older kids.
Beginning its third year, the middle-school Student Union is popular. In six of the nine schools, the programs are filled.
The number of children ranges, depending on the size of the room available, from 12 to more than 20. It costs families $200 a month for the program, regardless of the number of days or hours attended.
Ellicott Mills was built with a large activity/community room near its entrance. When the school opened three years ago, that room became the Student Union's permanent home. At other schools, the program may use a classroom as its dedicated space, if one is available. Otherwise, space must be shared with the school.
Although the Student Union is not a true partnership with county schools - each building is required to do little more than keep the room clean and publicize the program - schools appreciate the resource.
"It's a program that is not a part of the school system, but it is definitely valued by the community and the school," said Madrainne Johnson, assistant principal at Ellicott Mills.
"The parents are very happy that we have the program here. Middle school students are not old enough to be left alone, and this does provide a structured program."
"One thing about the structure that I do like is that we have an organized game every day," said seventh-grader Miriam Bennett, 12. "I think it's too hectic when everybody's doing their own thing."
One of the objectives of the program is "to help teens learn to get along with others, and develop the values and skills they need to become good neighbors and contributing citizens," Moore said. Even during the first week of school, there is a community atmosphere.
Shavon Gordon is the group leader for the Ellicott Mills program. She is beginning her third year in after-school enrichment. "We get to do a lot of complicated projects" with the middle-schoolers, she said.
They will build model cars and perform a community service project this year. But Gordon was clearly enjoying the simple pleasure of a game of "Battleship" with one of her charges. Nearby, assistant group leader Jeff Lewis, a recent graduate of Long Reach High School, played a raucous game of foosball with two pupils.
But the children here also know when it is time to get serious. Eighth-grader Viraj Raiker, 13, said, "I get to do my homework so when I get home I don't have to worry."
Immediately after school, the children have 30 minutes of time for homework. They can get help from Lewis or Gordon.
Parents arrive as early as 4 p.m.; the program ends at 6 p.m.
"The time slips by like that," Gordon said. Between basketball games in the school gym and impromptu dance contests, she said, "we get so involved. ... I wouldn't pass this up for anything."
The nine middle schools with Department of Recreation and Parks after-school programs are: