It's a Monday morning at Deerfield High School, in Deerfield, Illinois, and the gymnasium is filled with the typical boisterous sounds of shouting and running feet. But on second glance, most of the students in this high school gym are pint sized, and their teachers are quite a bit younger than you would expect.
Just over a dozen two- to five-year-olds in this group at the Deer Park Teaching and Learning Center -- a not-so-typical child-care facility housed within Deerfield High School -- are racing around the gym depositing pieces of trash in either a garbage can or a recycling bin. (It's up to the kids to figure out which.) High school sophomores, part of a child-development class, are leading this activity, which combines gross motor play with the theme of the week. In this case, it's "Save the Earth," in honor of last April's Earth Day.
A New Model:
The on-site day-care facility at Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Ilinois, is staffed by students and populated by the children of parents who work for the school district. Credit: Tori Soper
Filling a Real Need
Launched in 1992 at the urging of district employees with toddlers and preschoolers, the Deer Park child-care center occupies a tucked-away little world of two classrooms just off the high school's busy main hallway. This program, which blends quietly into school life, serves double duty, providing a learning laboratory for the high school students and a convenient child-care center for families of employees at Deerfield, its feeder elementary schools, and the community.
"For the families whose kids are enrolled, the preschool builds a deeper relationship and a deeper connection to the high school," says former Deerfield principal Suzan Hebson, now the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "Deer Park and Deerfield become their school. It's a shared, powerful experience."
According to Susan Johnson, who teaches the child-development class to Deerfield's sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the elective program isn't unique in presenting such a course to high school students or in providing a hands-on learning component. "But few high schools offer this kind of opportunity on site or nearly as intensively as Deerfield," she says.
Deerfield students spend several weeks in September learning the basics of child development in class, attend the equivalent of three classes per week, plus work another 95 minutes each week with the preschoolers. "I love the fact that this is a hands-on experience," says Johnson. "My students get to learn so much about working with children -- and even about parenting."
During classroom time, high school students, in groups of three or four, talk about what they observed while working with the preschoolers. They discuss particular incidents that may have concerned them or broader topics, such as the children's emerging learning skills. They also compare educational theories, such as those of Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson, and write up case studies about their kids.
Throughout any given week, seven classes of high school students will visit the 42 preschoolers enrolled in the program. With six high school students per group, three or four work with the preschoolers while the other students watch and take notes, which means that the usual caregiver-to-child ratio is 4-to-1 or 5-to-1, much better than the required 8-to-1 in Illinois day care centers with two-year-olds. (In fact, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services recommends a 10-to-1 ratio for centers with three- and four-year-olds and a ratio of 20-to-1 for those with five-year-olds.)
Kids Teach Kids:
Three or four high school sophomores work with each class of preschoolers, while other students take notes on the experience, which later find their way into case studies. Credit: Tori Soper
The preschoolers benefit from having more caregivers read them stories and lead creative projects. "It makes us stand apart from any preschool or child care in the area," says Karen Ellis, the preschool's director. "We have an additional level of energy, ideas, and fun. That's huge, and an amazing asset, especially for kids at this young age."
Second- and third-year students -- juniors and seniors who plan their own lessons and design independent art, cooking, science, and math activities for the kids -- make up two of the high school classes. When they're working with the preschoolers, it's under the tutelage of Johnson and fellow teacher Heather Vida. Together, the two eduators spend a great deal of time modeling teaching for the high school students. Over time, they gradually step back and let the students take over.
"By late fall or early winter, the expectation is, 'You plan the activity, and you're in charge,"' says Ellis. "We want them to feel confident about taking risks. At the same time, we don't want it to be a sink-or-swim situation."
Close to Home:
The Deerfield program provides a hands-on teaching experience for students right on the high school campus. Credit: Tori Soper
The program also gives the high school students the opportunity to develop people skills they can use in many fields, plus the opportunity "to both try on a career and to realize that parenting is a huge responsibility," adds Ellis. "It's especially rewarding for the students to take a class like this, because they get to generate and try their own ideas and see how well they work," Ellis says.
The Payoff for Kids
The high school students say they greatly value the opportunity to put into immediate practice the bag of tricks they learn in class. Plus, they love the challenge of responding to the unanticipated emotional situations with young children -- the numerous mini-conflicts in which one kid catches another out of line and they begin pushing each other. According to sophomore Jenn Grage, you have to learn how to sort through conflicting accounts of what happened. "And there are always situations that come up that you don't know how to deal with," she says.
Ellie Christenson, also a sophomore, points out that some kids can be surprisingly stubborn. "If they don't get their way, it's hard to deal with them afterward," she admits. "You have to learn how to react, or not react, to their fits."
Johnson believes that such insights -- learned from hands-on experience -- are among the highlights of the class. "They're not just learning from a book. It's an entirely different story when you have to deal with real-life situations," she says.
Though kids gain skills applicable to many types of careers, some of the students say they signed up for the child-development class to learn tips and tricks to help with babysitting, while others are seriously considering careers in education. "I wanted to learn how kids of different ages respond and how to correct their behavior," says sophomore Sarah Merritt, who has a large babysitting clientele. And sophomore Lauren Abrams explains it this way: "The class provides experience in teaching little kids rather than just playing with them and putting them to sleep."
Spreading the Word
Several other high schools in the Chicago area have started similar programs, according to Ellis, and she has consulted with others who are also investigating this approach. Setting up such a program can be fairly simple: The initial requirements are available space, a willing administration, and families who need care. In the case of Deerfield, the high school provides the space and maintenance, and Deer Park (which was already an operational half-day preschool) provides the hands-on training.
The walls of preschool director Karen Ellis's office are plastered with notes and art projects from her little ones. Credit: Tori Soper
Costs are low for the district because the tuition Deer Park charges these parents -- roughly 70 percent of whom work at Deerfield and 30 percent of whom come from feeder elementary schools and the community -- covers staff salaries and such costs as teaching materials and food. The budget for the two-classroom operation is under $300,000, not including the physical space.
After 12 years at Deer Park, the program continues to deliver rewards for Ellis, whose office walls and shelves are densely cluttered with "treasures" -- notes and art projects from preschool students, including a message in magenta glitter glue that reads, "Miss Karen is the best!"
In addition to keeping in contact with the high school graduates who have their sights set on careers in early-childhood education, she enjoys crossing paths with former preschoolers who are now reaching high school age. One young woman, whom Ellis remembers as a sweet, outgoing preschooler, is now a freshman at Deerfield. She stopped in to say hello, and Ellis was not surprised to discover that she had been student council president in eighth grade.
"She knocked on the door, and I said, 'I know who you are,'" Ellis recalls. "It's exciting to have the opportunity to see them 10 or 12 years down the road. I know exactly who this person is going to be."
Ed Finkel, a writer in Evanston, Illinois, covers education and public policy.