It is a preschooler's dream: a ball pit, bikes and an indoor playground.
The Regional Early Childhood Center (RECC) at Bollman Bridge Elementary looks like a typical nursery classroom in many ways.
The Jessup preschool has bulletin boards with calendars, vocabulary words and children's artwork. But equipment such as the swing hanging from the ceiling is there for more than just fun -- it is meant to help pupils work on their motor skills.
RECC centers at 15 Howard County elementary schools are part of the Office of Early Intervention Services, a program of the county's public school system. The early intervention program works with children up to age 5 who have special needs. The needs may range from minor speech delays to developmental disabilities in cognitive, social or motor skills -- problems that affect their educational development.
"The overriding goal of early intervention, in general, is to prevent the need for additional services once they reach school age. But it's really bigger than that. It's the child being able to participate in their family and community," said Anne Hickey, instructional facilitator for the Office of Early Intervention Services.
The program, which is free for county residents, serves about 800 children. It receives federal, state and local funding in conjunction with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"Children birth to 3 are required to be served in natural environments, where they would be if they did not have a special need," Hickey said. So specialists in the Infant and Toddler Program go into homes and day care centers, wherever the child spends the day.
Ellicott City resident Petrina Wu contacted the program when her daughter's pediatrician noticed a speech delay. At 18 months, Gabrielle had not been able to say 10 words.
"The good thing is that they come to your home. They talked to me about my concerns, then watched Gabrielle ... and took notes," Wu said. On a second visit, "they spent an hour talking to Gabby. ... She didn't even babble."
The team that tested Wu's daughter wrote a report, then visited again to explain the results and to schedule therapy. After six weeks, Gabrielle is making new sounds and progressing well.
Like Gabrielle, children are assessed to determine if they need intervention. If a need is found, the family of a younger child receives an Individual Family Service Plan. For 3- to 5-year-olds, an Individual Education Plan outlines goals for development and is revisited every year. Children in this age group are served at a RECC. There, the "Learning Together" program combines special-needs pupils with their regularly developing peers.
"Those peers join the classes ... and attend as peer models and peer buddies for the kids," Hickey said. Because demand for preschools is high in Howard County, "we have waiting lists for that program. We also have an excellent reputation for small group size, good cost and also a good curriculum."
Bollman Bridge's RECC preschool day begins with small-group work and circle time. Children work independently at centers: computer, crafts, blocks and housekeeping. In preparation for Thanksgiving, the preschoolers made pinecone turkeys with colorful feather tails.
"What you really see is kids who are tuned into what they're doing, making choices, who are happy," said Bonnie Bricker, RECC team leader and a teacher in the Multiple Intense Needs toddler classroom at Bollman Bridge.
After completing preschool, the children will move to kindergarten. Those in the early intervention program attend regular classes where special education teachers work alongside classroom teachers. "The methods that might be beneficial to children of special needs might also be beneficial to children who are developing regularly," Bricker said.
Whether their children are served at home, at a RECC center or in a kindergarten class, parents respond "very favorably," Bricker said. "I think it's because we like our families. When you're helping a child, you're helping a whole family."
Information on the Infant and Toddler Program (birth through age 3): 410-313-7017; Child Find (ages 3 to 5), 410-313-7046. Elementary schools with RECC Centers: Bollman Bridge, Bushy Park, Deep Run, Fulton, Gorman Crossing, Hollifield Station, Ilchester, Longfellow, Pointers Run, Rockburn, Running Brook, Triadelphia Ridge, Waterloo, Waverly, Cedar Lane School.