University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

The Wonder Years

children from the UVM children's center playing in the woods.
Photograph by Thomas Weaver


The Wonder Years

EDUCATION | When education startup AltSchool expanded to Brooklyn, it turned to Mara Pauker to build it from the ground up. The 2007 UVM alumna had already launched a progressive preschool in New York City and was becoming known as an education innovator.

Despite having an established core curriculum, AltSchool allowed Pauker to infuse some of her own pedagogical theories and practices—ones she learned while student teaching at UVM’s Campus Children’s School as an early childhood preK-3 major.

“The early education program is where I understood that school did not have to be designed and delivered in the traditional way, but rather it could be a place of inquiry, joy, and wonder,” says Pauker. “The UVM Children’s School taught me to have profound respect for children, to listen to their words, to consider their points of view and to partner with them in their learning journey.”

Pauker is part of a growing number of alumni applying what they learned at the Campus Children’s School to their current positions in childcare centers, elementary schools, and other educational settings. Many of them gathered at UVM’s Alumni House for an event celebrating the school’s eightieth anniversary.

An exhibit on display offered a rich history of the school since its founding in 1937 by Sara Holbrook, a clinical psychologist and education professor. Across eight decades, the school has helped raise more than 2,200 children, and it provides critical field experience to students in early childhood education and related areas of study. 

A key decision was made in 1990 to transform the school into a full-time childcare center for children ages six weeks to five years old. Barbara Burrington, current interim director and head teacher form 1994-2007, Dee Smith, current pedagogical director of the school and head teacher from 1990-2015, and Jeanne Goldhaber, associate professor emerita in early childhood education, traveled to Reggio Emilia, Italy, to study municipal preschools and infant toddler centers that were being hailed by some as the best in the world.

“We were in for a complete shock when we went over there,” says Smith. “The intentionality, beauty, seriousness, attention to detail, aesthetics and the way they listened to children was just so impressive. They didn’t have a set philosophy, but rather a set of values that were very clear and a way of enacting them that I had definitely never seen before. It took a long time to develop something that was relevant to our own culture and context, but I feel like at this point it’s our model.”

Dale Goldhaber, associate professor emeritus and school director from 1991-2009, says, “Historically, American education has viewed children in terms of what they can’t do, and their future potential. We respected kids by listening and looking at what they could do right then, rather than arbitrarily deciding next week to do a unit on farm animals when there isn’t a kid in the room who could care less about cows.”

Through all of the advancements over the past eighty years, Jeanne Goldhaber notes that the original goal of sending education majors into the world with a “deep love and abiding respect for children” abides. “We want our students to be able to teach children how to be critical thinkers and look at them as full of wonder and curiosity.”

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