A research-based curriculum

On any given day, when the weather is warm enough to travel, a gaggle of pint-sized students explores DU’s campus. These are the infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children who attend the Morgridge College of Education‘s Fisher Early Learning Center. Thanks to an innovative program that takes full use of University grounds and facilities, they have learning experiences both inside the classroom and out.

“Outside, we have 1,200 acres of University campus to investigate, and we take great advantage of the physical environment,” says Fisher’s executive director, Marcee Martin. “There are trees, a pond, and safe sidewalks in the center of campus. There’s an art institute, the Ritchie athletic center, a science lab and a cafeteria. Real life occupations being demonstrated everywhere for the children to see.”

Fisher’s research-based curriculum emphasizes sensory-motor, functional and literacy skills and uses storybooks as a foundation for learning and play. The center’s dedication to inclusion ensures children from all backgrounds have the opportunity to learn and play together.

“We encourage diversity. We encourage families from all socio-economic backgrounds to be a part of our population,” Martin says. “Every child is included. We don’t have a different room for children with special needs, and we don’t separate children who don’t speak English. While inclusion is normal in public schools because the law requires it, it’s certainly optional in a preschool setting.”

Small classes and a low student-to-teacher ratio are two reasons this type of inclusion is possible at Fisher.

“Our philosophy is that children learn best when they are in a warm, safe environment where they can learn from teachers and from other children,” Martin says. “At the infant level, we have nine children and three teachers per classroom. At the toddler level, we have 15 children in a classroom with three teachers, and at the preschool level, we have 19 children in a classroom with three teachers.”

With more than 6,000 licensed child care centers and preschools in Colorado alone, it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd, but the 8-year-old Fisher Center already has a three-star Qualistar rating, National Association of Educators of Young Children accreditation and selection as a demonstration site for the National Individualizing Preschool Inclusion Project under its belt.

Because Fisher uses progression-style enrollment — ensuring every enrolled child a place in her or his subsequent class from infant care through preschool — there are only about 60 openings per year. Approximately 200 families compete in a lottery for the available spaces, and about 50 percent of Fisher enrollees are the children of DU faculty, staff and students.

Although there’s no official data tracking students’ progress after they leave Fisher, Martin doesn’t think most center graduates will experience the “fade-out phenomena” — a disturbing situation where the ability to achieve academically disappears in elementary or high school.

“We have lots of younger children whose older siblings graduated from Fisher and are now in first, second, third or fourth grade,” Martin says. “We get lots of wonderful reports from the parents about how easy the transition was to elementary school and how warm the older children still feel toward Fisher. [Nonetheless,] the fade-out question has been asked before, and we hope to do a formal study soon.”

Martin also hopes to work closely with DU’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy to address this issue.

“The Marsico Institute is very interested in putting things into practice so fade-out doesn’t happen,” Martin says. “We hope to work collaboratively with the institute to train our teachers on those strategies.”

Comments are closed.