Under a multi-section parachute, a group of 14 New Milford preschoolers race from one hue to the next as their teachers call out the names of different colors.

A couple of boys pop their heads through the center hole.

Teachers toss a few lower-case and capital letters under the parachute. Lots of giggles mix with a chorus of squeals as the children hunt to find letters that match.

Before this lesson, the mix of 3- to 5-year-old children sang the days of the week to "The Addams Family" television show theme song.

Down the hall from the New Milford High School cafeteria, these preschoolers are learning skills they need for kindergarten.

The lessons, such as "Weather Wise," "Cool Tools" and "Exploring the Ocean," are taught by NMHS juniors and seniors who want to pursue child-oriented careers, particularly in elementary education.

On alternating weeks from March 22 to June 5, the 25 children and 24 students meet Tuesdays and Thursdays or Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Some preschoolers attend all 10 weeks of the no-cost program.

The experiential, college-level child development course was introduced 15 years ago by course instructor Bonnie Cheron.

It took a few years before Ms. Cheron decided to borrow ideas from Danbury High School's model preschool, the Little Hatter Nursery School, by initiating an eight-week pilot program for children of teachers, two days a week.

After New Milford High School moved to its current building in 2000, Ms. Cheron secured a grant to outfit a classroom to resemble a preschool, complete with hand puppets, easels for finger-painting and child-friendly furniture.

Danbury High child development teacher Linda Mitten said the value of preschool programs is that theory becomes practical.

Otherwise, the course would be analogous to "teaching a food class and just talking about food but never cooking anything," she said.

In New Milford, as in Danbury, students are the preschool's teachers. They plan everything -- story choices, theme and skill of the day, a creative activity, a learning center, and what the children will play and sing.

With the state's emphasis on early childhood learning, Ms. Mitten said these programs are a gift to families who may not qualify for Head Start but can't afford private preschool.

The high school students, meanwhile, get insight into child-oriented careers or how to one day be "nurturing, caring parents."

This school year, New Milford High began offering a prerequisite course in early childhood education from birth to age 3. So far, the course has proved to be quite popular.

Twenty-two students enrolled each semester, Ms. Cheron said.

"We absolutely love it," said mother Heather Tietjen, whose 5-year-old daughter, Lizzy, is enrolled this year. Ms. Tietjen's 7-year-old son, Nathan, is a former student.

"My kids are so outgoing, and this has helped them blossom even more," she said. "It makes them feel special to go to the high school, and these students (who teach them) are great with the kids. And they are our future teachers."

NMHS senior Sophia Symon said this experience is proof of how dramatic one year in a child's life can be.

"We're really lucky to have this," said fellow senior Heather Muoio. "We're enjoying this as much as they are."

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