An Anoka-Hennepin class puts preschoolers into high school and high schoolers into preschool.
A yearlong series, Child Development and Child-Related Occupations 1 and 2, gives teenagers a view into the mind and body of a tot, and gives the little ones an older buddy to mix it up in the Lego or dramatic play station. Over the course of a year, the older students have a chance to transition from observer to volunteer to aide and intern.
The program, now at all five of the district's high schools, makes use of side-by-side classrooms, separated by two-way mirrors. Renee Larson, a Family and Consumer Science teacher at Blaine High School, described the introductory classes for the high schoolers that start with a PowerPoint presentation, video or lecture on some facet of child development. After the lecture, she opens the blinds separating the two rooms, and she and her students observe the preschoolers at play and at work, watching out for real-live examples of fine motor development, for example, and attending to the activities the youngsters' teacher uses to build those skills.
"I turn off the lights, turn on the speakers and open the shade," Larson said. The older students "research what's typical at that age, and what, individually, are they doing, intellectually, emotionally socially. They get to see all that and watch them grow."
The high school students spend one week of the trimester volunteering in preschool classes of 3- and 4-year-olds, and 5-year-olds getting ready for kindergarten. The teenagers might take charge of a playing/learning station or prepare a story to read and discuss or develop an art project. All the while, they're using their new knowledge to challenge the children and spark learning, said school readiness teacher Karen Marsolek.
"I always tell our high schoolers, you think you're going to teach them a lot? You're going to learn from them," she said. "They say, this is the best time of my day to come in here, and the time goes so fast. ... The little kids look up to them and the high schoolers want to be there all the time."
Students also receive college credit toward certification or a degree.
The program has been in place in the district since about 1986, said Marilee Christensen-Adams, the district's assistant manager for Community Education. In the beginning, classes took field trips to visit offsite preschools, but by the early '90s, the district started to install onsite labs.
In the advanced classes, students work more closely with Marsolek and her counterparts at the other high schools, designing lesson plans and classroom bulletin boards. Eventually, they also take internships in elementary schools around the district.
Blaine High School junior Alex Mielke is starting her second trimester, after completing the introduction last year. She said she really enjoyed the week in class with the tots. Mielke is starting with an advantage over her fellow students: Her mom is a pre-school teacher. She already knows she wants to work with kindergartners, inspired by a young cousin.
"That's where I decided I wanted to be a pre-school teacher," she said. "Just working with him and playing with him was really fun to do."
Her classmate, Maggie Brodeen, a senior, also said she had the idea she wanted to work with children, as a teacher or a nurse.
"I thought I'd take the class to see how it is," she said. "It kind of made me want to be a teacher more. I really enjoyed the time with the kids. Working with them, talking with them was really, really enjoyable."
She described two boys at the Lego table, who played with the same kinds of toys.
"You could see the different way their imaginations worked," she said. "They're both playing together, but they're completely different."
These days lots of the children in Karen Marsolek's classes are the offspring of Larson's and her students, many of whom also have used the springboard into careers in early childhood and elementary education, health care, social work and other related fields.
"I have kids come back with their résumés, saying, this experience let me do this and this and this," she said. "I tell the kids it's a lot of work, but guess what, if this is what you want to do, you'll find out right away instead of having to spend four years."
Sometimes students decide to take another path.
"They say, I know I'm not going into this as a career, but I know now I'll be prepared to be a parent," Larson said.
In any case, there's an important lesson for students to learn about interacting with little kids.
"You can do book learning all you want," said Christensen-Adams. Then, she said, "you're with kids and discover, there's the plan and there's what happens. You need to have that experience."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409