Teens and tots team up

TCHS' award-winning preschool picked for million-dollar grant

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

TUBA CITY, Feb. 23, 2012

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

TOP: As Tuba City High student Lakisha Russell, left, watches, students Unique Byars and Shaye Jones teach the children at the TCHS Child Development Center how to do the latest dance craze, the cha-cha slide.

CENTER: Children enrolled at the Tuba City High School Child Development Center clap their hands as Shaye Jones, a student in the school's early childhood education class, teaches them the cha-cha slide.

BOTTOM: Early childhood education student Lakisha Russell shows a pre-schooler how to select shapes to follow a pattern in this exercise, one of several "learning stations" the children rotate through during the course of a day.

The great thing about pairing teens and toddlers is that they have about the same energy level. And both age groups love to dance.

Today, for example, four students in Tuba City High School's early childhood education lab class are teaching a group of preschoolers the latest dance craze, the cha-cha slide, as their pre-snack exercise.

The main task for the teens' teacher, Gerónima Lopez, is keeping the students from having too much fun.

"When they first come, they just want to play with the little kids all day," Lopez says. "I have to keep reminding them that they're teachers."

Being a teacher seems to have sunk in for student Shaye Jones. He is even seeing a teachable moment in snack time.

"How many grapes do you have?" he asks his four tiny charges.

The kids begin to earnestly count their grapes, except for one girl, who stuffs all but one of her grapes in her mouth.

"One!" she declares through a mouthful of half-chewed grapes.

Jones' lesson for the day: Sometimes intelligence and laziness come in the same small package.

That's the kind of lesson you don't normally find in a textbook, and that's why this "lab" (which the community thinks of as a high-quality, free preschool for their kids) is here.

"You can read all you want to in a book," says senior Christianna Nez, "but you don't really know what it's like to work with kids until you get in there in a room full of them."

Part of TCHS' Career and Technical Education Department, the education program not only gives students hands-on experience, but also college credit. Each class in the series is accepted by Coconino Community College in Flagstaff.

"It's not an AP class, it's not an imitation college class, it's a real college class," emphasizes program coordinator Maria Goatcher. "Sitting in here is just like sitting in a classroom at Coconino."

This doesn't sink in to the students until they go online and visit Coconino's website.

"They say, 'I'm in the computer! I have a transcript!'" Goatcher said. "I don't think it's real to them until that moment."

In fact, if a student takes the whole sequence of four courses - education professions fundamentals, education professions applications, fundamentals of early childhood education and early childhood education applications - he or she can graduate with 16 college credits - basically a whole semester.

"And they don't pay a dime for it," notes Woody Begay, the CTE director at Tuba City High. "For kids who don't have a lot of money, it's a real head start on their college career."

Proving CTE's worth

So unique is the program that last fall it was awarded a million-dollar grant by the U.S. Department of Education - one of only six given in the entire country - for a chance to prove that CTE can provide "a rigorous program of study."

Gone are the days when CTE could teach a kid how to weld or frame a house and call it good, explained Goatcher.

In the world of No Child Left Behind, school districts want to know every student is being prepared for college, not just funneled into a trade.

Academically, Goatcher will pit her classes against anything in the school.

"Show me another program that gives the kids 16 hours of college credit," she said.

The program is riding on such a tide of cash and recognition (last year it was named one of the "Pathways to Postsecondary Education" by the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education) that it's hard to believe that, just two short years ago, it was a struggling stepchild one step away from the chopping block.

Still recovering from a multi-million-dollar deficit racked up by a previous superintendent and budget cuts at the state level, the school district's administration was casting about for places to cut.

"They said, 'What are we doing running a preschool anyway?'" Goatcher recalled. "'Do we really need this?'"

Goatcher was heartbroken. She had nursed the program along for 20 years, ever since it had started as a nursery for the children of teenage moms attending the school. She had just come off rebuilding the preschool after a broken water main had flooded it.

Support for the early childhood program had gone up or down with each new administration, but this was a new low.

"They gave our building to the band," she said. "Can you imagine? Everything specially designed for little kids, even little tiny toilets, and they gave it to the band. I thought, 'Oh well, I'll look for something else to do.'"

Surging interest

Surprisingly, even without a lab, enrollment in the program surged that year. Seeing that education classes might be cut altogether, students crammed them into their schedules. Of course, it wasn't the same.

Nez was one of the students who didn't get a lab class that year.

"It was really disappointing," she said. "I still learned a lot, but reading about how to handle a kid who's throwing a tantrum is a lot different from actually doing it."

Nez and the other students who stuck with the education classes in spite of losing the lab gave Goatcher the heart to continue.

"I have the best students in the world," she said. "I thought, 'If they want this program, they should have it. Whatever I can do for them is better than nothing.'"

Then, suddenly, the stars aligned. Tuba City High School got a new interim superintendent, who was a fan of CTE.

In short order, it would get a new principal and a new CTE director - both of whom also pledged support for the beleaguered education program.

Shortly after the new super, Marilyn Atcitty, took over, Goatcher got what she refers to as "the call."

It came from Jan Brite, manager of the Career Pathways Program for the Arizona Department of Education. Brite had heard of Tuba City's program and wanted to nominate it for the Rigorous Program of Study grant.

"I'm sorry, I can't help you," replied Goatcher. "I don't even have a lab."

"Then you have to reinstate it," Brite shot back.

The state official immediately sent a letter to the district notifying it of the scale and importance of the grant, and urged them to supply Goatcher with anything she needed.

Atcitty jumped on the opportunity. Goatcher was given two classrooms and a storage area to recreate her preschool. Parents flocked to re-enroll their toddlers.

Goatcher raced to prepare all the necessary paperwork and arrange site visits. In October, she was informed TCHS had received the grant - $250,000 a year for four years.

Goatcher hired Lopez and a teacher's aide, Heidi Heaton, who turned the three classrooms into a state-of-art preschool ... complete with, yes, tiny toilets once again.

New CTE Director Begay says he'll go to bat for Goatcher any time she needs something.

"I'm so proud of her and of this program," he said. "She's such a ball of energy. Her enthusiasm is catching."

The proof of the program's effectiveness, though, is not its teachers but its alumni. Two have started their own preschools. Some teach in the public schools and one has gone on for her master's and will probably end up with a doctorate.

Even if they go no further than to take all four courses during their high school career, they can walk right into $15- to $18-an-hour jobs in preschools and child care programs.

So, for now, the education program is on some very solid footing. But that doesn't mean Goatcher can rest on her laurels - quite the opposite.

"We still have to prove that we're a rigorous program of study," Goatcher said. "We haven't forgotten that. The whole purpose of this grant is to see whether CTE really is worth funding."

Too bad they can't just ask the students. Far from a frill that's examined by every successive administration, early childhood studies should be a required class along with math and English, some of them believe.

"To me, it's life-learning," mused student Unique Byars. "Children are something most people have to deal with on a day-to-day basis."

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