GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Shania Christopher, who'll be 16 this month, is a second-year student in Early Childhood Professions, a program in Mesa County School District 51's Career Center.
Through the alternative high school's partnership with Western Colorado Community College, Christopher said she's on track for earning nine college credits toward an early childhood education certification.
Christopher said she enrolled in the program at the suggestion of her mother, and found she really liked it.
"I really like kids," she said. "I've learned a lot about the developmental stages of kids."
Students in Debbie Neill's early childhood professions class gain firsthand experience working with children at the Career Center preschool, 2935 North Ave.
The preschool is part of the district's federal- and state-funded Colorado preschool program - normally housed at each of the district's elementary schools.
The Career Center serves as the "overflow program for the district. When a child's home school preschool is full, parents can apply for the North Avenue preschool site. There are morning and afternoon sessions, 8:30-11:30 a.m., and 12:30-3:30 p.m.
Children who attend the free preschool are considered at risk of not graduating from high school, lead teacher Jo-Zan Kirk said. Reasons include parents who are disabled, or those who did not graduate from high school; families who move frequently; or, children whose parents work in the oil and gas fields, she said.
"These are wonderful kids, and it's a wonderful program," Kirk said.
In Neill's classroom, she teaches early childhood education principles - where, like the preschool next door, several different activities may be going on at the same time. Students create their own lesson plans for the preschoolers, and then try it out on them the following week.
Through a two-way mirror connecting the two classrooms, students observe Kirk interacting with the 15 preschoolers, ages 3-5. They also watch Kirk's two assistants Cindy Kucel and Shelly Denton, speech pathologist Suzy Coleman, and occupational therapist Katie Langlier.
"It's a wonderful program," Kirk said. "It's a win-win situation. We get the extra support. They get the hands-on experience."
Students who accomplish certain criteria earn the privilege of spending a week working in the preschool.
During last quarter, Neill's students focused on safety and sanitation.
"My students earn a food handlers' card and an early childhood certificate from the Mesa County Health Department for safety and sanitation," Neill said.
Like the other Career Center vocational programs, students earn three elective credits the first year, and a half credit in math, and a half credit in English, plus two electives, the second year. Neill teaches three, 90-minute sessions a day.
Advanced students often intern at various childcare facilities, and some are hired for the summer.