When the Triumph Center for Early Childhood Education opened in September with 60 three- and four-year-olds, it fulfilled a shared dream of UC Davis neuroscientists, educators and community activists to provide an innovative and affordable preschool for children in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood.
The school is a three-way partnership of St. HOPE Public Schools, UC Davis School of Education and UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, which strives to understand the causes of and develop better treatments and, ultimately, cures for neurodevelopmental disorders. Discussions and plans for the school have been in the works for more than four years.
While the majority of children in the school will be typically developing children, eventually one-fourth of the preschoolers will have autism, learning disorders, hyperactivity or other neurodevelopmental issues. Teachers and therapists will provide for these children's special needs while typically developing classmates will interact with them, learning from the experience as well.
"We will not only be using the latest research about helping all children learn and perform at their very best, but this is a great opportunity to include all children in a mutually beneficial learning environment," says Robert Hendren, UC Davis chief of the Division of Child Psychiatry and executive director of the M.I.N.D. Institute.
UC Davis researchers and educators will observe from behind one-way mirrors how individual children learn and interact with peers in whole-group and small-group interactions. This will help researchers, as well as Triumph Center teachers and parents, understand children's development better.
Hendren says several studies indicate that if typically developing children are in a classroom alongside children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, "they can participate in helping these children learn, and in turn, it actually helps them perform better scholastically and with their citizenship skills."
Hendren calls it a "win-win" for everyone involved.
UC Davis educators will work closely with the school to refine teaching materials and methods as well as investigate how children learn, according to Harold Levine, dean of the university's School of Education.
"As researchers at the M.I.N.D. Institute learn about how the brain develops, we're hopeful – and there's some evidence to suggest – we can create areas of the brain or brain mechanisms that will allow us to develop teaching and learning materials that can be used to stimulate children whose brains do not develop in a typical manner. This is a wonderful goal," he says.
Cristin Fiorelli, founding director of the school, says the philosophy of teaching and learning at Triumph is that "every child, regardless of ability, has the right to fully participate in a school experience that honors his or her interests, learning styles, life experiences, culture and individual needs."
What makes the school unique, she says, is its use of the inclusion model, its partnership with a major university and research institute, and its location in a low-income community.
The school hopes to enroll 75 children by the end of this school year and more than 85 children in three to five years. There will be two teachers for every 16 to 18 children, guiding them in a hands-on curriculum of reading, writing, cooking, dramatic play, science, gardening, art, music, movement, and sand, water and block play.
"Our partnership with the M.I.N.D. Institute and the School of Education helps us assure parents that they will have the best learning experience for their children," she says. "Ultimately, we hope to use the observations of researchers and educators to develop a cutting-edge curriculum."