MISHAWAKA, Ind. (AP) — The youngest students on the Bethel College campus seat themselves on a colorful rug that has the letters of the alphabet marking the border.
They readily follow teacher Ariana Grabill’s request for quiet as they prepare to compete in a mathematics game.
These aren’t college freshmen. They are squirmy, giggly, energetic kindergartners enrolled in Lab-K, the kindergarten classroom that is a partnership between the college and School City of Mishawaka.
The program, now in its second year, gives children the chance to attend school daily on a college campus. And it gives Bethel education majors regular opportunities to visit, assist and observe schoolchildren just steps from their own college classrooms.
“The kindergartners here get a lot of one-on-one attention,” said Grabill, a 2013 Bethel graduate. She taught for several years in the Niles Community Schools before becoming the Lab-K teacher last fall.
As soon as she heard about the opening, she knew she wanted to apply. She said she’s loving the experience.
Grabill’s classroom has an instructional aide in the mornings and another in the afternoons, in addition to regular visits by Bethel education majors.
Lab-K is tucked in a back corner of Miller-Moore Academic Center. It’s a fully equipped kindergarten classroom, with colorful learning tools decorating the walls and a fenced outdoor play area with pint-size playground equipment just outside the south door.
The classroom served 15 students in 2016-20017 and has the same number this year. The class can enroll up to 22 children, and Mishawaka school administrators are seeking to get close to that number for next fall.
It’s a Mishawaka public school kindergarten. It’s funded by the school district and Grabill is a Mishawaka teacher. It’s considered part of Battell Elementary School, which is about a five-minute drive away.
“Each child should be given the best chance to succeed,” said Battell Principal Matt Wood, who administers the Lab-K program and visits the classroom about once each week. He hopes attending kindergarten on a college campus will get the children thinking at an early age that they will attend college or pursue other postsecondary education opportunities.
Parents apply through School City of Mishawaka for their children to attend Lab-K, which is open to families from any school district. Because it’s a public elementary classroom, there is no tuition. Families are required to drop off and pick up their children each day.
Mishawaka resident Jessica Wood (no relation to the principal) enrolled her son, Cash, in Lab-K for this year. She lives in the Penn-Harris-Madison school district, but decided to enroll her boy in the Mishawaka program. She’s glad she did.
“My nephew attends Bethel College, and he mentioned the kindergarten to me,” the mother said. “When I visited, I realized the kind of one-on-one attention he would get. I’m very highly pleased.”
After Cash completes kindergarten, his mother plans to enroll him in first grade at a Mishawaka public school. “I wish (Bethel) had first, second and third grade, too,” she said.
“We’ve had a strong partnership with School City of Mishawaka for years,” said Jim Bennett, a professor and program chair of Bethel’s education department. Lab-K was a natural extension of that partnership, he said.
“We were looking for a way to provide practical experience for our teaching candidates day in and day out,” the professor said. Many Bethel education courses have requirements for field work, and the kindergarten classroom provides the ideal setting, he said. The college has more than 200 undergraduate and graduate education students.
Next door to the kindergarten classroom is an observation room. Through a one-way mirror, the college students can observe instructional techniques without disrupting the classroom. A microphone and speakers allows the observing students to listen in on reading lessons and other activities.
A program called “Bethel Buddies” pairs college students with the kindergartners in regularly scheduled group activities. “Bethel Buddies is a powerful piece of the program. I wish we had it in every classroom,” Matt Wood said.
The children take field trips to spots around campus, including story time in the campus library and physical education in the college gymnasium.
Goshen College also has a laboratory kindergarten, which is a partnership between the college’s education department and Goshen Community Schools. It’s been in operation since 1959 and has partnered with the public school system since 2008.
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