Students in Peggy Thomas' Early Childhood Professions class at Canyon del Oro High School say they are learning a lot about children, but that the program is missing one important element.

The children themselves.

But that is all about to change, hopefully next semester, Thomas said, with the renovation of two science classrooms that will allow the students to care for and observe children ages three to five. The children will most likely belong to other employees in the district, Thomas said.

Thomas said while other districts, such as Sunnyside and Marana, have similar programs, they aren't quite as specialized as CDO's will be once the renovations are completed.

"Marana has a more informal teen parent program," Thomas said. "I want to emphasize that that's not what we have."

Thomas said the emphasis of her program is childhood development, which is best understood by watching children during the specific stages of development.

"The best way for them to learn about children is to be around them," Thomas said.

Current students in the three-year program must go to outside child care facilities to get experience with children, Thomas said.

"We send students out all over the Northwest side," she said. "Thankfully, we have people in the community who know about early childhood development," which Thomas said is a huge advantage for her students.

The students usually spend Mondays in the classroom with Thomas and then spend two days out in the field during class time where students either drive themselves or take a district van to a child care facility. CDO has a block schedule, Thomas said, which means students meet for classes only three times a week for about an hour and a half.

"What I have to do is make do without having children close," Thomas said. "When (the students) are out there, they take their lesson plan they made during class time and do that activity."

Thomas said she spends a semester teaching her students about the elements of child care centers and how to communicate with family members. During the second semester, students spend the majority of their time out in the field.

"The problem with that, though, is that I can't supervise their instruction," Thomas said.

Thomas said while most of her students are interested in education, some students are also interested in pediatric medicine, which can be a little more difficult for students to get hands-on experience.

"Basically, Early Childhood Professions is for children interested in a whole variety of careers with children," she said. "But it's difficult to get students who want to go into pediatrics into hospitals."

The renovations, which CDO principal Michael Gemma said will cost an estimated $325,000 to complete, will hopefully be finished by the beginning of next semester. The cost for renovations also includes the cost for renovating the special needs life skills classroom which comes from the same funding source. The project is currently out for bid in compliance with the state's procurement policy. Once the lowest bid for the project is accepted, the renovations will begin, Thomas said.

Thomas said CDO has had the program in place since 1977 when Thomas, who has degree in family and consumer sciences education, began teaching at CDO. The program has 18 criteria students must demonstrate in order to be successful in passing the class, including demonstrating knowledge of all types of childhood development, safety procedures, sanitation skills and childhood nutrition.

Thomas, whose classroom is in a portable trailer, said students were able to monitor children in the portable until 1996 when state law changed the standards for child care facilities.

"We couldn't meet the strict requirements, but those requirements are a good thing," Thomas said.

One of those requirements Thomas said she couldn't meet in the portable facility was the ability to have an observation lab where the students could watch the children without the children noticing. With a lab, Thomas said, students will be able to apply what they have learned about childhood development stages to real life.

Thomas also said other teachers will be interacting with the children, which will also give students a chance to observe the best ways to interact with children.

The new facilities will also feature an outdoor play area, laundry facilities, a kitchen and bathrooms for the children to use. Thomas said she hopes to have 20-25 children for her 150 students to observe and care for throughout the school day.

"It will be so much easier," said junior Michelle Moreno, who is in her second year of the program. "We'll be able to have more hands-on experience and it will help us learn children's different abilities at their different stages of development."

Moreno, who wants to teach preschool-aged children, said she has always loved being with younger children and that Thomas' class has been instrumental in preparing her for her future career.

"We learn about the different stages of development and the different things you have to do during those stages, like making sure you're not leaving anyone behind or if you're going too slow," she said.

Senior C.J. Lefevre, who also plans on going into preschool education, may only have a semester to take advantage of the new facilities, but said he is still excited about the change.

"It's going to be awesome to see them develop in certain activities," he said. "It's actually involvement instead of just reading about it. I hope to come back here after college and work there."

Kacie Merriman, a junior also in her second year of the program, said the new facilities will give the class a big advantage for their upcoming state competition for the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America.

Merriman is the president of the organization which includes all students from the Early Childhood Professions program.

"We'll be one of the only high schools in Tucson with child care," she said.

Merriman said the program has also been beneficial in teaching her about her career of choice: to be a third grade teacher.

"In third grade the kids are still so innocent, but they still want to learn, and they're starting to develop their own sense of humor," she said. "This class has helped me visualize the future and learn about all of the ups and downs and twists and turns that come with teaching."

Thomas added that by bringing children on campus, students will be better able to understand the realities of entering into a career dealing with children.

"We are real excited to see this program come to where it needs to be," she said.

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