Campus: CSU Northridge -- May 16, 2003

Small School, Big Ideas, Toddlers Thrive at CSUN Lab School

In the center of a small cluster of trailers on the west side of the Cal State Northridge campus, three one-year-olds are running their hands through a large tub of pinto beans and shouting with glee.

A block away, two classrooms full of three- and four-year-olds have separated into groups and are playing on computers, dressing up in old finery, building cars out of large wooden blocks or are sitting at a small table and using glue, markers, crayons and scissors as they unleash their imaginations onto construction paper.

Next door, kindergartners are beginning to settle down for story time.

Throughout it all, teachers are keeping a close eye on every activity, assisted by more than a dozen CSUN students. It's a typical day at CSUN's Laboratory School. Operated by the Child and Family Studies Center in CSUN's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, the Lab School offers cutting-edge curriculum for children ranging in age from four months to kindergarten level. Developmentally and academically appropriate, the school is inclusive of children with special needs.

The Lab School serves as a research laboratory for Northridge students studying early child development, education and administration while fulfilling the university's commitment to community service and strengthening its community connections.

Open to all children, it is accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs for maintaining the highest standards in early childhood education and by the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences as a high quality instructional site.

According to Director Barbara J. Hill, the Lab School is one of CSUN's best-kept secrets—at least on campus.

"I still get people telling me, 'Oh, I didn't know this was here,'" she said, though for nearly 40 years the Lab School has provided CSUN students with hands-on experience working with young children and "quality, holistic education to the young children in our community."

Started in 1965 by what was then the Home Economics Department at San Fernando Valley State College, the school "mainstreamed" children with special needs into its program—a revolutionary concept at the time. Through the years, the Lab School has evolved.
In 1990, it established collaboration with the CHIME Institute for Children with Special Needs, which furnishes a special education teacher, a speech pathologist and specially trained assistants. Working with the Lab School staff, the CHIME Institute staff assist children with special needs in each of the preschool and kindergarten classes.

The Lab School now offers two half-day classes, one full-day preschool class and a kindergarten class, with 18 children each. It also offers an infant and a toddler class with full-day care, as well as a program that parents attend with their toddlers.

Each program is staffed by at least one lead teacher (the full-day preschool has two) who has an advanced degree. Add student assistants, student interns and observers from the campus, as well as the CHIME staffers, and as many as eight adults could be in a full-day preschool classroom at any given time.

Nutrition interns from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences design and prepare weekly menus, including snacks for all the programs and lunches for the full-day preschool and kindergarten classes. Periodically, parent education programs on nutrition are offered in the evening.

The infant and toddler classes are designed so that a child has the same caregiver until he or she is ready to graduate to the preschool. To facilitate this, classes are kept small: only three babies are in the infant program.

"We understand how important, particularly at this age, it is for the child's development to have continuity of care," Hill said.

Parent and CSUN alumna Delia Calderon-Smith discovered the Lab School six years ago. She was looking for a preschool program for her son, Daniel, now 9 years old, who has special needs.

"As far as I could learn, the Lab School at CSUN is the leading full inclusion program in Southern California," Calderon-Smith said, referring to an educational philosophy that advocates the full participation of children with special needs in regular classrooms. She eventually enrolled three more of her children at the school, including a special needs child who has since graduated.
"I really love that school," Calderon-Smith said. It teaches the children to be self-sufficient, to solve problems, to be grounded in their own bodies and to have confidence in their abilities, she said.

"The academics aren't forgotten," she added, "it's just that the emphasis is on making sure the child is developing at the right level."

The Lab School is so popular that parents have been known to put their children on the waiting list for the full-day preschool program as soon as they find out they are expecting. One of the unique features of the Lab School is the team-teaching aspect of each program. Though each program has a lead teacher, her assistant and the other student "teachers" in her classroom play a vital role in the day-to-day operation of the school.

"Every day, the teachers meet to talk about what is going on in their classrooms, and everyone, including the students, are encouraged to take part in the discussion and to offer solutions if a problem comes up," Hill said.

The team-teaching approach often surprises the student interns and observers, most of whom come from the departments of family and consumer sciences, child and adolescent development, psychology or the Michael D. Eisner College of Education.

A couple of years ago, Hill assigned a new assistant to the kindergarten class. The assistant, a returning student who had worked for 20 years as a public school teacher's aide, was skeptical that there was anything more she could learn.

"The student came back to me a couple weeks later with tears in her eyes," Hill said. "She had spent most of her time in the public school system wiping down tables, copying lesson plans or cleaning up. But here, she was put in charge of a small group of children, asked to help with lesson plans and take an active role in actual teaching of the class. She couldn't believe that her opinions were so valued and that she would truly have a hands-on role in the classroom."
Among other things, Hill would like to add another full-day preschool class, expand parent education offerings and even add an after-school program for community children already in elementary school.

"There's much more we can do, and if we get the chance we're going to do it," Hill said.
For more information about the Lab School, located at 18330 Halsted St. in Northridge, call (818) 677-3131 or visit its Web site at

Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler (818) 677-2130

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