Programs with youth in mind

Funds: Students test their brainpower in after-school programs, thanks to more spending by Howard social services.

December 03, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Their homework done, 7-year-old Abigail Anthony and her after-school companions stacked their chairs and gathered on the carpeted floor to studiously work with Shape by Shape - plastic puzzle kits that use small geometrically shaped pieces to make different patterns fit into a small frame.

"This is not an easy task. You have to focus," said Dana Torrence, a tall, intense, well-dressed man sporting a shaved head and shiny tasseled loafers, to the 14 fifth-grade children in Columbia's Swansfield Elementary School. "You can't solve it if you're constantly moving around."

Torrence's program, called "MentM-i Method - The Thinking Sport," is the key ingredient added to a collection of after-school programs in Howard County this fall, thanks to an abundance of money in the budget.

Howard's social services officials were red-faced in August to find they had spent only 10 percent of the $100,000 in county funding provided for child care last summer.

Most of that money - $57,000 - was donated by the County Council, which trimmed its administrative budget to help offset $350,000 in state budget cuts for general child care in Howard County. That came on top of a $500,000 cut in state money to the local Head Start program.

Only 15 children were sent to summer programs this year, using 10 percent of the available funds.

That angered social services board members, leading to a renewed effort this fall to find ways to help children.

Doris Mason, interim director of social services, said $33,000 of the money is helping support a county school system program for pregnant teens and teenage mothers.

The funds donated by the County Council are also paying for Torrence's program and a slight expansion of after-school sessions through a contract with the Columbia Housing Corp., which operates after-school activities for children in the Rideout Heath and Roslyn Rise subsidized-housing communities.

Also included are after-school programs run by the county's recreation and parks department in Ellicott City's Hilltop Housing, the Roger Carter Center, Laurel Woods Elementary School and Guilford Gardens, and will include children living at either the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center or the Valencia Motel in North Laurel.

"Our simple request was that the money be used to help those who could use a hand," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

To that end, Dale Jackson, administrator of the county's Office of Children's Services, said she searched for a use that would have the greatest impact, using the Columbia Housing Corp. to knit a variety of after-school programs together.

"We're really pleased," she said, and although it is a one-year program, the regular after-school coordinators can learn Torrence's techniques and use them in the future.

The after-school enrichment program is divided into two, with Swansfield, Hilltop and Laurel Woods in the first phase, from Oct. 18 to Feb. 18. Roger Carter, Guilford Gardens and Rideout Heath are in the second, which runs from Feb. 22 to May 27.

The program will transport children from Grassroots and the Valencia Motel who want to participate, said Carol MacPhee, executive director of the Columbia Housing Corp.

Each phase of the program will serve between 75 and 100 children, MacPhee said.

Patricia Hill, who monitors community-based learning programs for county schools, said she is impressed with Torrence's program.

"He is about the children. He's focused on their growth and development," she said.

A lawyer, Torrence began working with children as a volunteer in the late 1980s at Columbia's Jeffers Hill Elementary.

After years as a volunteer, Torrence said he began to get requests to teach his thinking skills at other schools. He gradually developed his ideas into a full-time business, which now takes him across Maryland and the country.

"I've spent over $50,000 on games and puzzles," he said.

At Swansfield, Torrence, 47, gave the children crisp orders and suggestions, raising his voice suddenly to stop their fidgeting and regain their attention.

The children worked in two-person teams, examining each shape, placing them on plastic-coated sheets for identification, and following color design patterns shown on "hint" cards to make them fit in the assigned square.

Little expressions of triumph followed the solutions.

"It's fun," said Abigail, who has dark hair, glasses and a toothy smile.

When she is home, her mother, Shabeena Anthony, said, "she watches cartoons and doesn't finish her homework."

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