Frederick County to get fifth Judy Center Early Learning Hub

·4 min read

Jul. 31—As about a dozen women led their small children out of a Hillcrest Elementary School classroom Thursday morning, Michelle Lucena stood by the door, offering hugs to the toddlers who made their way past her.

"I love you," she told the children.

"Do you need diapers?" she asked several of the mothers.

Lucena is the program administrator for the Hillcrest Judy Center, a state-funded initiative that provides family services from pregnancy through age 5 in school communities with high concentrations of poverty. The centers offer playgroups, parenting classes, job coaching, English tutoring, therapy, groceries and more, aiming to better prepare children and their families to enter the public school system.

"People call us the one-stop-shop for early childhood," said Kathy Allen, Frederick County Public Schools' early childhood education and Judy Center coordinator.

And thanks to a $330,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education, a brand-new Judy Center is coming to Frederick County this fall.

The Judy Center at Monocacy Elementary School will join the four existing centers at Hillcrest, Butterfly Ridge, Lincoln and Waverley elementaries. Allen said she hopes it will be up and running shortly after the new school year starts.

Because Judy Centers can only serve families who live within the attendance area of the school at which they're housed, opening a new one means extending resources to hundreds of new children and their caregivers, Allen said.

"It's huge," Allen said, a smile spreading across her face as she wrapped up a playgroup at Butterfly Ridge on a recent morning.

About a mile away from where Allen was working, a coworker was stationed in front of the H-Mart on West Patrick Street, handing out Judy Center flyers to shoppers.

One of the biggest challenges in operating the centers is making families aware of their existence, Allen said.

For that, the Judy Center staff lean heavily on their partners in the county — from the local YMCA to the public library system.

Jolene Miller said she learned about the Judy Center when Frederick County Health Department staff came to assess her 21-month-old granddaughter, Scarlett, who was showing signs of a possible speech delay.

Miller has been bringing Scarlett to the playgroups all summer, she said. Recently, she told a neighbor about the program, so now they come, too.

"It's a hidden gem," Miller said.

Being around other toddlers has helped Scarlett progress toward some social and developmental milestones, Miller said.

And Allen said kids like Scarlett will reap the benefits of Judy Center programming when it's time to start school: They'll have experience following instructions and playing with other children. Plus, the school setting won't be as foreign or scary to them.

"If she's here for three years before she starts Pre-K, she'll feel like Butterfly Ridge is home," Allen said.

Nearby, Scarlett's 3-month-old brother, Graham, snoozed in his stroller.

It's common for Judy Center staff to have multiple sets of siblings in a playgroup, or to work with the same mother through two or three pregnancies, Lucena said. That's part of what makes the relationships between families and center staff so strong, she said.

Andrea Perez's almost-five-year-old, Noe, was a timid baby when the family started coming to the Judy Center about four years ago, Perez said in Spanish as Lucena translated. He's a lot more social now, Perez said. In the fall, he'll be starting kindergarten.

Perez brings her baby daughter, Raquel, to Judy Center events, too.

In addition to getting kids comfortable with school, the centers help families navigate a wide array of community services. Allen said staff members connect parents with food stamp programs, set up medical appointments and help caregivers enroll in school or job training.

The center also teaches classes and provides resources to help new parents better understand the complexities of healthy child development.

"We try to really bring that whole science-y, brain-development piece down to families so they understand it," Allen said. "It's hard to know as a parent what's typical development versus what's something to be concerned about."

In the primarily Spanish-speaking Hillcrest Elementary attendance area, Judy Centers play an important role in building trust between the community and the school system, Lucena said. The language barrier means misinformation about social services can spread easily, she said, and some immigrant families are nervous about seeking public assistance.

"We try to educate them, like, 'No, it's okay. Come to school. We can help you,'" Lucena said.

Lucena handed packages of diapers to several mothers as they left the Hillcrest playgroup Thursday morning. She was all out of wipes, she told them. But when more came in, she promised, she'd let the families know.

"It takes a village," Lucena said.

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek