Recent Wharton graduate Rebecca Larose poses with preschool students Maryam and Cohen during Halloween festivities at Wharton’s Wee Wildcats program last fall.

While the halls at Wharton High are mostly filled with teenagers, there’s a brightly colored preschool-sized playground adjacent to the front parking lot that may seem a bit out of place on a high school campus.

It’s actually a symbol of a unique learning opportunity that benefits both high school and preschool students. 

A handful of preschoolers arrive on campus four mornings a week for a program called “Wee Wildcats,” named after Wharton’s mascot.

The program has been a part of the school for two decades, bringing together high school students who want to learn about early childhood education with preschoolers whose parents appreciate the low cost of the program and the attention their children receive.

“It’s been phenomenal,” says Marissa Harris, whose four-year-old son, Cohen, was in the program last year. This fall, Cohen will return to Wee Wildcats, and he’ll be joined by his younger sister, Charleigh, who is three.

Wee Wildcats is offered Tuesday through Friday, from 9:30 a.m.-11:55 a.m., for children who turn three by September 1 of the year they enroll, until they go to kindergarten. Parents pay just $40 per month per child.

Marissa says she was nervous at first to leave Cohen in the care of high school students, but she decided to give it a try because it’s so affordable.

And, she says, Wee Wildcats quickly exceeded her expectations.

“Cohen is so comfortable and he’s learned so much,” she says, which is why she’s opting to bring him back for another year.  In addition to his ABCs and 123s, Marissa says Cohen has learned how to spell his name and put letters together to form words in an environment he loves.

The Right Teacher

Wee Wildcats is led by Wharton’s early childhood education teacher, Erin Heilman, who doubles as the preschool director and has credentials to teach students in both age groups. The preschool only accepts 15 students at any one time to meet proper ratios for the one adult in the room — although they are considering hiring a second adult to make room for more students — but several high school students are the ones who actually lead the preschoolers through their day, which closely follows Florida’s VPK (voluntary pre-kindergarten) curriculum. 

Wharton students in the first year of the program, typically freshmen, do bookwork in the classroom during times when there are no preschoolers in attendance. As they progress through their sophomore, junior and senior years, they begin to alternate bookwork with planning lessons and teaching the preschoolers in their care. The students design the lessons for the preschoolers, then lead them throughout the day.

Meanwhile, the bookwork they complete prepares them to earn a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential from the State of Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) once they turn 18. Some students may immediately begin using this license to teach in a preschool. For others, it’s a stepping stone to future goals.

Alexis Fernandez is a senior at Wharton who says she wants to teach elementary school after college. She is entering her fourth year of the Early Childhood Education program at Wharton.

She says her freshman year, before she was allowed to work with the kids, was “amazing,” as she learned how to “deal with kids.”

“It’s very difficult teaching small kids,” Alexis says. “They get distracted easily, and get upset a lot, too. I understand that, but without the program, I don’t think I could handle it. Really, it’s all about patience and learning how to be strict, but also calm and understanding.”

Alexis says the kids prefer the arts & crafts and hands-on activities. Heilman says she will continue to add science-based activities. For example, the preschoolers observed the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly last spring, and they will plant a garden this fall.

Heilman has been leading the program less than a year. She took it over late last fall, while it was undergoing a transition. She had been hired at Wharton as a technology teacher in the business department, thanks in part to the MBA (Master of Business Administration) degree that she holds from the University of Phoenix, Tampa campus.

She had previously taught middle school history and then third grade at the Turner Bartels K-8 school and was excited to move to Wharton, where her son is a junior.  

One day, when a newly-hired teacher didn’t show up for work, administrators called on Heilman.

“I didn’t even know we had a preschool at Wharton, but I was the only one on campus with an early childhood certification,” Erin explains. “So, I ran down there and greeted the parents.”

She says several days later, she was offered the position.

Heilman says it feels like her dream job, and brings together many of her skills and passions. She asks rhetorically, “How lucky am I that I get (to teach) these incredible high schools students, as well as preschool?” 

For example, Heilman’s business background helps her coach high school students who might want to open their own preschool one day. Not only do they need to know how to teach preschool-aged children, Heilman also can help them create a business plan.

She’s also elevating the program to be much more selective, where it was previously open to any interested student.

For the 2019-20 school year, only 45 Wharton students were chosen for the program, out of 130 who applied.

“I want only the best of the best working with these preschoolers,” Heilman says. “They have to be highly qualified with a high GPA, no tardies, no suspensions, and two teacher recommendations. Ultimately, I always think, ‘Would I, as a parent, leave my child with that student?’”

For the students who were chosen to be in the program this upcoming year, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

“I think it’s a great program for the community,” Heilman says. “I’m so proud of these high school kids. If I had known about Wee Wildcats when my son was that age, I would have put him in it.”

For more information about the Wee Wildcats preschool program at Wharton High, visit http://wharton.mysdhc.org/Programs/Wee%20Wildcats/ or contact Erin Heilman at Erin.Heilman@sdhc.k12.fl.us.

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