Kristen Maxwell holds her mom's hand as they stand in line with other families for the first day of preschool. Dressed in glittery shoes, her hair fashioned neatly in braids, 4-year-old Kristen keeps close to Tonieka Hooks as they go to meet her teacher.
Once inside, Hooks and the other parents are shuffled into a small anteroom before saying tearful goodbyes.
Tucked in the back of the class is an observation room, a space behind a one-way glass wall where parents can pop in during the school day to observe their children learning.
This is Central Unified's new demonstration preschool, and Kristen and her classmates are some of the first students to enroll.
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"There are times when the parent just wants to stand back and learn," said Elizabeth Andrade-Stiffler, preschool program supervisor for Central Unified. "Especially for that new parent, this is their first child, it just brings a little more comfort and ease to see, yes, their child is OK and is doing really well."
It's a new take on a decades-old concept used at colleges and universities across the nation, where preschools have long been venues for researchers to study young children's behavior.
At Central's preschool, parents can go behind the glass and watch their youngster interact with the teacher and their peers.
Across the central San Joaquin Valley, preschools like this one are being used as training grounds for parents and aspiring teachers -- and as labs for researchers from fields spanning psychology to social work.
Over at Clovis Community College Center, formerly known as the Willow International Center, college students are getting their own lessons in early childhood education. Community college students work as interns or assistants at the center's preschool, where they practice teaching toddlers and preschoolers in hopes of someday leading a class of their own.
Fresno State also has its own lab preschools, where students and professors conduct formal research on everything from children's behavior to the effect of various teaching methods on student success.
A window for parents
In Kristen's classroom, it's almost time for the preschoolers' parents to say bye-bye. Kristen tries to overcome her quivering lips with smiles and new playthings: she is carefully picking through a pile of seashells, finally settling on a tiny shell to show her mom.
"That's a baby seashell," Hooks says, as Kristen's eyes widen at the idea. "She's really strong," Hooks continues, but it's clear both are getting anxious about parting.
It's all pretty normal, Andrade-Stiffler says, recalling many teary-eyed first days of preschool. But Central's new lab school eases the daily goodbyes -- parents can drop by during lunch or on a break and learn a thing or two about how their child is progressing.
There even is a special door to the observation room that allows parents to enter without interrupting class time.
"It's a wonderful opportunity just to give our parents a chance to see how their child learns," Andrade-Stiffler said. "Oftentimes we see children will behave differently when their parents aren't around."
Parents Kimberley Perkins and Eugene Mitchell are lingering in the lab room, watching their son Kristian Perkins-Mitchell play with a dinosaur.
A window of dark glass separates them from their son. But that small distance makes all the difference, Perkins says, adding that she likes the opportunity to observe Kristian, 4, without his knowledge.
"I want him to interact more," she says. "I see he's just sitting there, figuring out what's going on. When he gets home I can talk to him about it later, ask him if he's comfortable (and) how his day went."
Training future teachers
At Clovis Community College Center, student Kou Moua leads bubbly 20-month-old Brooklyn Shaw around the playground to join her toddler friends. The group is using miniature shovels to splash water and sand into a banana-yellow wagon.
Moua, a child development lab assistant at the college's preschool, aspires to someday supervise a school like this one.
She spends a few hours each week with Brooklyn and other young children at the class for toddlers. She is learning how to teach them about colors, animals and the alphabet.
"Reading, interacting with them, talking with them one-on-one, getting dirty with them ... this is why I'm in it, because I enjoy working with kids," she said.
Several dozen college students spend time at the center each year, many in the early stages of studying topics like child development and social work. Some are hired as paid interns, while others like Moua use their time to observe or write about children for class projects.
"They get an opportunity to participate in a high-quality program, to see what that looks like," said Sallie Turpen, a child development instructor. "They're not just learning things in a lecture, but they get to apply them."
A preschool laboratory
Traditional research on children's earliest years is flourishing at universities like Fresno State, where 300 students, professors and out-of-town researchers use its lab preschools for studies or classroom projects each year.
Similar to the preschool at Clovis Community College Center, future teachers can use Fresno State's preschools to practice instruction. But it's also a place for more formal research, like a project studying young children's physical activity that is being conducted by Tiffany Gonzales, a graduate student.
On one morning this past summer, Gonzales is playing with Elise Wetherhold, a shy 4-year-old with long dark bangs and temporary tattoos running up and down her arms.
Elise is one of the students Gonzales is observing. When Elise and her classmates go outside to the preschool's playground, Gonzales measures how often the children moderately or vigorously exercise.
"I'm hoping to find which variable leads to the highest level of physical activity," says Gonzales, who is pursuing a master's degree in applied behavior analysis. "Then we could apply it as teachers, as parents. Whether it's just saying, 'You're running so great,' or playing with them outside. ...
"That's the good thing about labs and research, it brings together different fields," she said. "We can come together to basically improve a child's life."