Seated at a check-in table stationed in the school's foyer, Markeya Nardini and Domenique Miller are consummate hostesses - and ardent advocates - on the day that Carroll County school officials had chosen to focus on an increasingly popular after-school program.
The two girls are wild about the Community Learning Centers program, which enables them to get help with their homework, play games that reinforce lessons they have learned in classes and join after-school clubs.
"You have teachers here helping you with your work, and they understand it because they taught it to you during the day," Markeya, 10, a fifth-grader at Willliam Winchester Elementary in Westminster, offers with little prodding. "They understand it better than our parents. And they make it fun and exciting - we're not sitting around bored."
William Winchester recently joined nearly 8,000 schools that held open house events as part of a national "Lights on Afterschool" effort to shine the spotlight on after-school programs.
In Carroll, nearly 600 students are enrolled in Community Learning Center programs, which have been started at a dozen elementary, middle and high schools during the past seven years - five of which opened this school year.
"This helps our parents," said Domenique, 11, a fifth-grader. "And it feeds our minds because after we get help with our homework, we play mind-bending games."
It's a program that many people - from school board members to parents and students - say is working. But with state grants, the program's largest source of funding, set to expire in each of the next two years, organizers are hoping to win additional installments of the state grants or increased local school funding to cover the program's nearly $1.5 million price tag.
Students begin their after-school sessions - offered Monday through Thursday - with a snack and social time. They then have about an hour of homework help and academic enrichment time, which often includes games that are intended to build upon math and reading concepts that students cover during the day.
The children then are given about an hour for club activities, which vary from day to day. Clubs also vary from school to school, but have included music, art, drama, geography, history, community service, tennis, gardening, clogging and video production.
On a recent day at William Winchester, a group of pupils in the community service clubs was making cat toys that were going to be donated to the local Humane Society and painting magnets that were destined for local nursing home residents. Meanwhile, about a half-dozen children in the geography club were discussing bodies of water - from streams to rivers and oceans - as they tried to sort them out by size.
"For many of our students, especially those with working parents, this is not only a place to get their homework done, it's also an opportunity to do activities that not all have access to," said Martha Cotterman, who coordinates the program at William Winchester.
The programs are funded primarily through the state's 21st Century Community Centers grants, which are fueled by federal financing designated for after-school initiatives, said Lynda Gainor, coordinator for intervention program for Carroll public schools. Local school board funds supplement the programs.
The Local Management Board, a county agency, fully supports the after-school program at New Windsor Middle, Gainor said, while the school system pays all the costs for programs at Sykesville Middle and Westminster High.
Elementary and middle school pupils pay $3 a day for activities and $3 a day for bus transportation. High school students do not pay fees, but donations from parents are accepted. Students who receive free or reduced-price meals attend free.
At a school board meeting last month, Gainor's office reminded board members that a three-year $400,000 state grant expires in June while an additional three-year $440,000 state grant expires in June 2007.
To continue the program will require a greater local commitment, she said in an interview last week.
"We're in the process of applying for another 21st Century grant from [the state Education Department], but we're competing with [all 24] school districts, as well as faith-based organizations," she said. "We already know that the most we can apply for is $318,750 because the state wants to make sure as many jurisdictions as possible can apply."
Gainor points to significant academic strides as the best evidence for continuing to fund the program.
"Year to year, 80 percent of our students who came in with D's and F's and attended 30 days or more are now making C's or better on their report cards," she said.
She added that teachers have told her that their students have developed better attitudes toward school, are better prepared for class and come to school with their homework done.
"The students develop a relationship with the teachers who ... get to work with them in smaller groups after school," she said. "And the teachers get to see their students in a different light."
Theresa Schoonover, whose daughter Alissa Brown is a second-grader at William Winchester, said the program has helped Alissa's reading and social skills.
"She's now reading to her brother, and she has more friends," the mother said. "She's less shy than she used to be."
To underscore the value of maintaining the program, several pupils at William Winchester's open house told parents and school officials how much of a difference the program has made for them.
"They help me to read the books; they make me proud," said Jose Villenueva, a second-grader.
Fawnia Caulford, a fifth-grader, echoed the sentiment:
"CLC is a good place to be after school."