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Juniata Early Childhood Education Center: Maintaining A Learning Laboratory

(Posted August 8, 2001)

As the school year opens at Juniata College in fall, the brick walkways of the college teem with students, faculty and more than a few children ranging in age from 18 months old to age 5.

Well, actually the little children are just teeming around Juniata's Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC) a state-licensed and accredited preschool in the first floor of Lesher Hall adjacent to Ellis College Center on the Juniata campus.

"The most important thing we provide is a safe and nurturing environment where the children feel safe and are able to learn," says Christine Breene, co-director of the center.

The center, which has a spacious learning area that once served as a college cafeteria, offers a program for toddlers (18 months to 35 months) Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. for $234 per semester. The preschool program (ages 3-5) offers four different programs: Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 9-11:30 a.m. ($435 per semester); Tuesday, Thursday from 1 to 3:30 p.m. ($261 per semester); Monday, Wednesday from 1 to 3:30 p.m. ($261 per semester); and Monday through Thursday from 1 to 3:30 p.m. ($450 per semester).

The center serves two functions. First, it serves as a learning center and preschool for 65 to 70 children each semester. Secondly, it offers Juniata College students, almost all of them education students, experience in teaching and interacting with young children.

"We are a blended program, which means that we accept children with special needs," says Sylvia McDowell, co-director of the center. "This gives us the opportunity to better serve the community and offer Juniata students a variety of teaching experiences during their time here."

The center is open to the entire Huntingdon community and enrollment is on a first-come, first-served basis. "The best time to call for enrollment is at the end of the semester in May or early June," McDowell says. For information on any ECEC program, call (814) 641-3401.

There are two full-time co-directors on staff, as well as a full-time teacher and educational aides from Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11. In addition, there are several Juniata College work-study students and students from the college's education department working at the center during the academic year. Vision, speech and physical therapy services also are provided by members of the center's support team.

The curriculum is based on the interests of the children as well as the teaching staff. "Let's say that several children are fascinated by trucks," Breene explains. "We would incorporate that into lessons. For example, we might cut out paper into truck shapes, and then write about trucks, look at books about trucks, sort or categorize toy trucks to build math skills, or even walk down to the (von Liebig) science center construction site to look at trucks in action."

McDowell says the staff tries to mix aspects of math, science and language skills into childhood developmental areas such as social skills, emotional development, cognitive skills, physical and adaptive development and language and communication skills.

"Children are always developing and learning as they play," Breene says. "If they are playing with blocks, they can learn about shapes, balance, construction, social skills, language and even conflict resolution."

The center also uses the resources of Juniata College to make its pupils' learning more varied. In a typical year, the children might visit the Juniata College Museum of Art, walk over to the Brumbaugh Science Center to examine dinosaur fossils or visit a building site. They also take field trips off campus to local farms and other attractions.

The center also acts as a learning classroom for Juniata students. Each semester three work-study students are hired. They work as aides, helping with preparation, cleanup and lessons.

The center also is used as a student teaching opportunity for students from three education courses: Childhood Development, Curriculum, and Families and Teachers.

Students from each of these classes are required to spend two hours a week -- called a "practicum" in educational jargon -- gaining experience and applying the principles learned in each class. "There are usually 30 students each semester doing some part of their practicum," McDowell says.

Students from Childhood Development Class usually help with lessons or activities. The Curriculum students teach under supervision and write lesson plans, which are critiqued by either McDowell or Breene. Students from the Families and Teachers class will select a child and write a case study of the child's development, including a home visit with parents.

The center is a nonprofit agency operated by Juniata College and supervised by the college's education department. Juniata College also offers a partial tuition waiver for families who can show that they are unable to meet the costs of the program. For more information on tuition programs, call Breene or McDowell. "The students learn to work with a lot of different people and collaborate with professionals as well as families," Breene says. "They also get to work in a preschool that is a model of inclusion, with kids of all skill levels as well as children with special needs. Not all preschools have that."

"Many of the students come in here their freshman year and they can tell right away whether specializing in childhood education is right for them," McDowell says. "Every day is really a learning experience for everybody involved here, including the full-time staff."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.