`Judy Centers' provide educational boost

Regional news


ADELPHI - On a recent morning, 3-year-old Jennifer Medina could be seen in her classroom singing songs and learning skills aimed at readying her for kindergarten.

Her mother, Daisy Medina, 29, of College Park, was upstairs in a classroom of her own, learning skills aimed at readying her for the GED exam.

The scene, where parent and child attend school side by side, is common at the Judy Hoyer Family Learning Center in Adelphi, part of a statewide network that just marked its fifth year since being signed into state law.

Each "Judy Center" is a one-stop shop for services including adult education, Head Start programs and health support, intended to help low-income and disadvantaged families prepare for their children's entrance into school.

"It's very interesting, especially how they help you with your kids," Daisy Medina said, referring to parental counseling provided by the nearby University of Maryland.

There are now 24 centers operating, with one in all but three Maryland counties. Most are partners with nearby elementary schools, such as the center at Cradlerock School in Columbia, a prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.

Daisy Medina said the Adelphi facility, which provided the blueprint for the rest of the state, has made Jennifer friendly and outgoing.

"She started singing because they used to sing different songs every day," she said. "Now I see a difference between her and my other kids. She loves books."

So while Jennifer is learning sounds and shapes, Daisy, who was a mother by the time she left high school in the 10th grade, is a month away from obtaining her GED.

She hopes that by finishing high school she can better motivate Jennifer to follow through on her schooling, something that happens too little among people at her income level.

"A lot of the time, the parents are working and don't even know how their kids are doing," she said.

The centers have been effective in closing the so-called achievement gap between low- and middle-income students, according to an outside evaluation by Tallahassee, Fla.-based consulting firm MGT of America, released last year. The report also found notable improvements in performance among children who entered with limited English proficiency.

Nancy Grasmick, state superintendent of public schools, said in an interview that the five-year mark for the centers means the state can better track how some of the first students perform in later grades.

"It will be more significant as we see children who matriculate through the system," she said.

She added that another outside evaluation will be conducted in 2007, which is when many of the centers' inaugural students finish elementary school.

But in light of their successes and dedicated funding from the state - $7.6 million a year - the centers face formidable hurdles, especially in maintaining enough staff with the skills required for the job.

"Early childhood [education] is an area of shortage. We don't have a sufficient number of highly qualified teachers," Grasmick said.

She said she has collaborated with top higher education officials in the state to get a deeper commitment to early education from Maryland's universities and colleges. "It needs to increase dramatically," she said. "Towson has been a big supplier, but many other institutions have not done much for this."

The Judy Centers were the brainchild of Judith Hoyer, who was supervisor of early childhood education for Prince George's County public schools when she died of cancer in 1997. Before that, she taught elementary school and served several education posts in the county. Hoyer studied early childhood education at Towson State University in the 1950s.

"She was convinced that if you are going to succeed, it had to start in pre-K," said husband and longtime U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Mechanicsville Democrat. "You had to get them up to speed and competitive."

Grasmick, who studied with Judith Hoyer at Towson, saw upon graduation that few were interested in early education. But Hoyer continued to advocate it for the next three decades, and by 1989 she helped convert an empty convent in Adelphi into what would become the first Judy Center.

The continuation of Hoyer's work after her death led to legislation signed in 2000 that formally established the centers and grants for early education statewide.

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