After having two boys, Darnell Shakes and his wife, Sherri had a "surprise" a year ago: a little girl.

They named her Maexing and decided to seek advice on raising a daughter in Camden. Which is how they came to be students and, more recently, graduates, of Baby's Best Start.

"I can't say enough about the people here," Darnell, 35, says. "I want to encourage other fathers to do this."

The new initiative by the venerable Center for Family Services is modeled on the Baby College component of educator Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone program. Parents are invited to bring all of their children to the sessions, which emphasize reading and other essentials.

The center is offering Baby's Best in Clementon as well as in Camden, where it dovetails with a work-in-progress called Promise Neighborhood.

It aims to connect public and private human services, health and education providers to focus on families in the downtown neighborhoods of Cooper Plaza and Lanning Square.

Mayor Dana Redd will announce the receipt of a nearly $500,000 federal planning grant Wednesday.

"The goal . . . is to significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in our most distressed communities, and to transform those communities," Jennifer Hammill, communications director of Center for Family Services, says via e-mail.

"Baby's Best Start is just one program in the pipeline," Hammill adds. "We want to build continuous, comprehensive services for every age, every stage, through college, and graduation from college."

At Baby's Best, parents get nine free weeks of training, counseling, and practical advice about how to better care for, communicate, and bond with infants and children younger than 3.

"Parents are the first teachers," notes senior program director Nicole Sheppard. "We want to give them the tools to be the best teachers."

New research suggests that poverty-related stress in dysfunctional homes or neighborhoods can impair early neurological development, making it tougher for children to settle down and learn.

"We can't wait until preschool," says Barbara May, a registered nurse who is director of prevention programs for the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative. The nonprofit agency designed the Baby's Best curriculum.

The communication that gives a child a sense of security "starts with feeding," May says. "Of course, a mother may breast-feed. But for mothers, fathers, grandparents, and others [who bottle-feed], feeding should be a time of face-to-face interaction, looking the baby in the eyes, talking. Not feeding the baby while you watch TV."

Adds Sheppard: "Families in the city may need more resources. But there's a need for this program everywhere, across the board."

In Clementon, seven families have graduated from the first nine-week class. Ten more completed the course in Camden, including the Shakes family.

I meet the couple and their three lively (and, I must say, well-behaved) children at the center on Benson Street in Cooper Plaza neighborhood, where I also meet Yanira Lopez and her four children. Yanira's husband, Carlos, is at work.

As the babies - Estrella Lopez is a year and a half - do baby stuff, the older kids in both families are either on the computers or reading.

Both mothers say their kids love actual printed books. It's a sight to gladden a newspaperman's - or anybody's - heart.