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They learn, earn college credit

The Family and Consumer Science Child Development class at the high school works with third graders, interviewing each other, making sugar cookies, playing Bingo and doing the chicken dance. Left to right: Ben O'Neill, Brad Hetchler and Rav Veness. Submitted photo

Though we wish they did, children don't come with instruction manuals.

Food, nutrition and childhood development teacher Sue Schwartz's family and consumer education class may be the next best thing.

Her 80-minute high school sessions go well beyond home economics. Students who complete the curriculum earn credits that transfer to either a technical college or four-year university if the student pursues higher education in a child-focused discipline.

"I get a lot of them interested in elementary education," Schwartz said.

By passing the course, students earn certification as a child-care assistant. That qualifies them to work with kids in a daycare or preschool classroom, alongside the more experienced and educated main teacher.

Students taking the course also get training in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and shaken-baby syndrome.

Schwartz said after high school, some students go to work in a daycare center or study the field in college. One student adores babies and got a job working with them. Five years later, she still enjoys the work.

Schwartz said several of her former students have gotten jobs after high school at Beane Sprouts, Little Adventures and before it closed, Grow-and-Learn.

"We use the national standards for our curriculum," she said.

In the course of learning, students get a realistic orientation of what it's like to care for a baby. Each one takes home a simulation infant named "Baby, Think It Over."

Schwartz sets the level of baby's "fussiness." Many parents ask her to give their kid the most challenging one.

The teacher said she had to start limiting its usage to weekends only after the little doll's crying and demands caused many sleepless nights and in-class disruptions.

Students learn about stages of child development, age-appropriate play, nutrition, music and movement, and other aspects of child-care education.

Schwartz said students keep a journal of thoughts and reflections. They create a portfolio with their lesson plan, handouts, recipes and ideas.

The teacher said one student's aunt saw her portfolio and said, "I wasn't learning that kind of stuff until my junior year of college."

The classes go on several field trips each semester, rotating visits among the UW-River Falls' child care center, Bean Sprouts, Little Adventures, Abundant Life and an in-home day care. The students also visit local preschools.

She said only students who are 17 years old and who undergo a background check may work or volunteer on their own in the child care facilities.

The 80-minute class period enables students enough time to volunteer for an hour and gain valuable experience. Some of them get an after-school job for pay.

Schwartz said the course also includes visitors and guest speakers. The students hosted a class of third graders in December, using the visit to interact with each other and learn. The young children interviewed the older ones plus the two groups made sugar cookies together and played games and danced.

The teacher said speakers might include people from adoptive services -- like mothers from both sides of an adoption. Schwartz said she also had a teen mother visit once, too, and a local expert often visits to talk about discipline and guidance.

The students must conduct surveys during the course, which they do by interviewing children, an expectant mother and parents. The class learns about the four parenting styles, often through a series of videos narrated by celebrities.

For example in one of them, comedian Ray Romano talks about fatherhood.

"Boy, did that bring up some good discussion!" exclaimed Schwartz.

Students can also access a large library of videos, books, games and activities to use as they work with kids. Sometimes they race to get the best toys first.

Schwartz said the program and its credits have been offered through the high school for eight years. Next term, 26 young people will take it.

"It's very rewarding to see the students pull it all together at the end," said Schwartz.