Making room for little learners

Center: When space ran short at a Taneytown school, local leaders and volunteers created a new home for a Head Start class in an unusual place.

October 20, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

An aging, little-used and somewhat dingy building in Taneytown that was once a gun club's headquarters has become a warm, welcoming and safe space filled with children's lively laughter and their toys and books.

The Rod and Gun Club, a stark, concrete building with an uninviting dark interior, has been transformed into the Taneytown Head Start Center, a sunny place where 3- and 4-year-olds learn, socialize and play.

"Here was a cinderblock building virtually untouched since it was built," said Councilman Darryl Hale. "We all got together and made this happen."

He gave much of the credit to Head Start volunteers who spent about a month last summer renovating the building.

Head Start, a federally funded program for preschool children from low-income families, is operated by local nonprofit organizations in nearly every county in the country. Catholic Charities took over the Carroll program from the public school system about four years ago with most of the seven county sites in area schools. Burgeoning enrollment in those schools is pushing the program from classrooms and has its leadership scrambling for other locations.

"We are like squatters around the county," said Nancy Stiles, a member of the sisters of the Holy Union of the Sacred Heart and director of the county Head Start. "Anyplace where we can find space, we will use it."

In February, the program was notified that it would lose its classrooms at Elmer Wolfe Elementary in Union Bridge and at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown. It may have to vacate its space at Cranberry Station Elementary in Westminster after this school year.

Working with the child development class at Francis Scott Key High School, Head Start moved its Elmer Wolfe group there.

Harry Fogle, assistant superintendent for school management, said that with the county facing state-required all-day kindergarten in about four years, space has become an issue. "We have the same goals as Head Start and we will partner with them to whatever degree we can to help this program happen," he said.

With no room available in any other Taneytown school, Head Start could have lost its presence in the town. But Hale had space to offer in a city-owned building in the middle of a park.

As home to the Rod and Gun Club for about 40 years, the building had been the site of meetings, community suppers and receptions while the grounds were used for target shoots, fishing derbies and archery contests, said Godfrey "Dick" Miller, who served as the organization's president for 10 years. He said the building's walls were adorned with members' hunting trophies.

But after subdivisions sprouted in the areas around the club, members felt they had to sell, Miller said, adding, "You can't have a pistol range in a neighborhood." The club relocated to Frederick County.

The city of Taneytown purchased the building and about 20 acres for about $450,000 in 1993 and renamed it Taneytown Community Center a few years later, said Mayor W. Robert Flickinger. The building was rarely used in the past decade.

To prepare for Head Start's arrival, the city fireproofed the walls, replaced water and sewer lines and installed a new furnace for about $1,000. Volunteers painted the exterior and interior, restored the wooden floor, child-proofed the stairs and fireplace and hung drywall. Kathi and Mike Jeffra and their 12-year-old son Ben made it a "fun family project that took the better part of a month," she said.

Community effort

"The city bent over backward to make us feel welcome," said Kathi Jeffra, an administrative assistant with Head Start in Westminster.

Hale shifted the credit to the volunteers. "They totally gave of their time and gave the building a complete facelift," he said.

The city is donating the space, asking only that the program pay monthly utilities of about $50, said Stiles.

The 19 children enrolled in the daily program have breakfast and lunch, lessons in hygiene and manners, exercise and all manner of academic preparations for elementary school under the supervision of their teacher and two assistants. They move busily among play areas, the reading corner, the art center and a computer station, among other activities. They see the alphabet and numbers stenciled on pale yellow walls and can spend time outside at a newly fenced playground.

"There was a challenge adjusting to not being part of a school building and staff," said teacher Amy Rose, who has worked at Head Start for seven years. "But this space is working out well. There is a serene setting of the park and the town maintenance people have been so helpful with the building."

`Prepares them'

Autumn Naill, foodservice and classroom assistant, took a job with the program shortly after her daughter graduated from it. Her son will attend next fall.

"Head Start boosts their confidence and helps them develop socially," Naill said. "It really prepares them for kindergarten."

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