- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

Miriam Ochoa is calm amid the frenetic activity of 16 children who are determined to have their morning playtime at the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring.
The day care teacher interrupts her preparations and gets down on the floor to help three girls with a card game of matching colors.
"The best way to teach them things that are going to stick in their heads is to do it through playing," Mrs. Ochoa, 58, said Tuesday in the center's "Green Room."
The Guatemalan native, who secured a green card in May, has been teaching children since she was a student at Mariano Galvez University in Guatemala City.
After raising three children of her own with her husband, Francisco, Mrs. Ochoa came to the United States in 1988 as part of a sponsored child-care job for a Montgomery County family.
The job led to a chance to work part time for the day care center at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville and at the Baptist church.
The church's day care center, whose staff watches over 62 children from infants up to 5 years of age, offered her a full-time position in 1994. Mrs. Ochoa plans to stay at the center for the remainder of her career.
At the same time, the White Oak, Md., resident plans to go back to school for a bachelor's degree in teaching, and to apply for permanent citizenship.
"They're all goals to keep me here," Mrs. Ochoa says. She is setting up a bird feeder while holding Gaetone Bernard, a 4-year-old student, on her lap and continuing with the card game.
"Gaetone is my cricket," she says in response to the child's demand for attention. "Ultimately, the kids matter more than making sure we do everything that's on the schedule."
About 10 percent of the 62 children enrolled at the center are members of the church. In Mrs. Ochoa's class, 17 of the children are black, two are Hispanic and one is white.
Mrs. Ochoa, a Baptist, says she strives to keep to basic Christian teachings. "We teach the kids that God loves them and the basics, but I try to keep it nondenominational."
"We do grant work with low-income families, and it's increased the number of interested parties outside our faith," says Terra dela Santa, director of the center.
The child care center, with its weekly tuition of $142, is also considerably cheaper than other Washington-area day care centers, which can cost up to $300 a week.
Mrs. Ochoa's lesson plan, which includes colors, shapes, numbers, animals and days of the week, reflects the mix in students. She helps students pronounce, spell and learn the sign language for unusual names of classmates like Diema, Tochi and Eriyanna.
She also puts newcomer Nahum Getahen, a 3-year-old boy from an Ethiopian family, at ease by immediately saying, "Da dana," an Ethiopian greeting. "Little things like familiar words help familiarize a child's environment and make the transition from home easier."
Her lessons also include singing songs in both Spanish and English, but Mrs. Ochoa is a stickler for proper English.
"You were, not you was," she says with a light Hispanic accent to a 4-year-old, who after four tries says the correct phrase.
The classroom rules are also nonnegotiable, Mrs. Ochoa says. "We have temper tantrums once in a while, but they're easier to prevent when the children know the rules immediately and get in the habit of following them."
Most of the children are beginning to readjust to a full week of day care for the first time in a month. Like the rest of the Washington-area public schools, the center was closed during recent snowstorms.
Several of the children stay close to Mrs. Ochoa during story time, activities and the midday snack. "It takes some time for them to know that they're safe and loved here. Most are here from 6:55 a.m. to 7:05 in the evening, and they miss their moms."
The snowstorm closings also changed Mrs. Ochoa's lesson plan that she prepared a few weeks in advance, but she says it's part of the job.
"We're flexible in the schedule because there are days when the weather's so bad that you have to stay indoors, and then you have to come up with backup activities for the kids."
But on the mid-40 degree day, the children brave the cold for 15 minutes of building slush balls and running around the playground.
"Even if it's just for 10 minutes, you can tell the change in the children's behavior when they can play outside. They're happier and less tense, which makes my job easier."
To combat cabin fever, Mrs. Ochoa also plans at least one field trip a week. This week, the children made up a missed trip to Totally Fish Aquarium down the street to "check out the fishies."
Mrs. Ochoa says it's worth the stress of driving 20 students on the church's bus. "We've never had a problem during a field trip, and it's a great way for them to understand the lesson," she says.
Plus, the class has some new pets: two dwarf frogs that eat crickets. "Feeding them was really exciting and funny to the kids. Gaetone got a kick out of it."

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