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Mommy’s Little Teacher : Adults Learn Parental Arts From Work at Preschool

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scrunching their adult bodies into pint-size orange chairs, the students trace construction-paper ladybugs and knead green play dough.

Meanwhile, the teachers cavort rambunctiously around the room, revving with energy as they clamber over toys and belt out operatic arias.

In the topsy-turvy wonderland known as Horizon Hills, toddlers instruct their mothers and fathers in the fine art of parenting--and pick up a few pointers on the alphabet along the way.

Part of the Conejo Valley Unified School District’s adult education program, the Horizon Hills Parent Participation Preschool operates as a laboratory, in which adults work hands-on with professional teachers to learn about their kids’ development.

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The noisy, hectic classes--preschool lessons and parenting workshops rolled into one--cost just $1.25 an hour. But there’s a catch: To get into the program, adults must spend a few hours each week washing plastic dinosaurs, sweeping glitter off the floor and supervising sandbox play.

The philosophy is simple. “If we have more effective parents, we’ll have more effective generations of kids,” Principal David Woodruff said.

Intrigued by the program, Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) is scheduled to tour Horizon Hills this morning to study “how government programs are functioning at a local level and to familiarize himself with what is going on in the community,” said Kay Van Horn, the congressman’s local field representative.

About half of the Thousand Oaks school’s $200,000 annual operating budget comes from state adult education funds. “Lab fees” of $1.25 an hour make up the balance, Woodruff said.

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Teen-age moms can take advantage of similar programs in Oxnard and Simi Valley, and several adult education programs throughout the county provide child care while students are in class.

But the Conejo Valley adult program is unusual for combining parenting lessons for all adults with preschool for infants, toddlers and 5-year-olds. The 800 families enrolled include pediatricians, dentists, office workers and stay-at-home mothers and fathers.

Working parents must rearrange their schedules to accommodate the 9 a.m.-to-noon sessions, but they insist it’s worthwhile.

“You learn a lot from all the kids,” said Paula Scott, a single mother who watched bemused as her daughter, Elizabeth, jumped into a makeshift sleigh and cajoled two fellow 4-year-olds to push her around the cluttered room. “I’ve changed my whole style of parenting, from a dictatorship to more of a partnership.”

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Intuitively understanding just what they want from a parent, the children are more than willing to advise the adults--in exchange for a hug or some help building a wooden-block castle.

They quickly teach their parents to stand back and let them do things their own way. They show them what they are capable of and what they are not ready for yet. And they play happily with buddies who have completely different skills--reassuring parents that, for a 3-year-old, there’s really no such thing as normal.

“I now know not to say when we’re making crafts, ‘Mr. Carrot can only have two eyes,’ ” said Priscilla Harding, whose three sons have all gone through the parent-participation program with her.

“My child may put on three eyes, and that’s OK. I know not to insist he do a certain craft just so I have something to put in the baby book.”

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Harding, like other veterans of the decade-old preschool, credits the program with giving her the confidence and skills to get involved in her children’s elementary and secondary education.

As she worked on name-writing with a hyper 5-year-old who minutes earlier had been calling Pizza Hut on a fake phone to demand immediate delivery of 100 pepperoni pizzas, Ginger Hain said she’s learned “something new every day” since joining the program three years ago. And she believes her son, Austin, is picking up an important message as well.

“If you show your kids that you’re interested, it shows them how important their education is,” Hain said.

To supplement the classroom work, the adult education program offers lectures on topics ranging from planning vacations to parental self-esteem. For the kids, field trips provide a chance to pick pumpkins, take the bus to a post office or sit in a dentist’s chair.

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“As a parent, it’s hard to get down to their level and realize what they have fun doing and what their capabilities are,” said Bob Fletcher, who leaves his job as an insurance agent once a week to roll around on an oversized bean bag, tickling pre-kindergartners. “These classes have really helped me out.”

Such testimonials make Principal Woodruff beam.

Raising children “is both an adventure and a terrible amount of anxiety, because parents want so badly to perform the best they can,” Woodruff said. “We want to empower the parent.”


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