DECATUR — Jennifer Parks’ fifth-grade classroom is in the wing of Dennis School that isn’t air-conditioned.
So the kids made their own air conditioner.
“I saw it on Pinterest,” Parks said with a chuckle.
It’s a fairly simple idea, employing a fan, some ice, and a plastic foam cooler.
Last year, Dennis and Millikin University worked together for a trial run of the lab school concept, and this year, they’re going full tilt. Figuring out how to keep fifth-graders cool was just part of the idea that Dennis is a little different than other schools.
Recently, Millikin Professor Ngozi Onuora shepherded a group of sophomores to Dennis for an introduction to the teachers they’ll be shadowing and assisting all year. The sophomores plan to major in education, and this will be a good chance for them to find out if that’s their real calling. They spend part of every Tuesday and Wednesday at Dennis, and all day on Thursdays.
“We will consider you teachers,” said Principal Matt Andrews. “This is where you take the theory you are learning and put it into practice.”
Onuora told the Millikin students that they are also role models. They should dress professionally and leave the cellphones off and out of sight.
“It’s all about the kids and their learning,” she said.
During the tour of the school, they were able to get a good idea of how Dennis is different. Besides the air-conditioner project in Parks’ class, they walked into a kindergarten class where teacher Bekah Novak had cat whiskers painted on her face.
“We were reading a story about a cat and some mice and they made me be the cat,” Novak said with a laugh.
The Millikin students are ready to get their feet wet.
“It just solidifies me knowing that this is what I want to do,” said Chasity Casey of Decatur.
“It’s really exciting,” said Megan Smith, who’s from Kankakee. “To see the structure, and to be able to teach the kids, because we get to do a couple lessons, I think it’s great.”
Smith said the fact that they’re getting this hands-on experience so early in their college careers will give them a leg up in their future careers. By the time they graduate, they’ll already have three years of time spent with real students in a real school.
Other changes are underway at Dennis, too. Preschool started in October, Andrews said, and the staff is still working on a curriculum, but the idea is for the preschool to meld seamlessly with the program throughout the other grades.
Relationships with students are the most important consideration, Andrews said, and he wants a positive atmosphere in the entire building.
“We don’t talk about students in a negative way,” he said. “If you’re in the teachers’ lounge and you hear anything negative, get up and leave, and come and tell me.”
Andrews is new to Dennis this year, with the bonus of being an alumnus of the school himself. One of his former teachers, Bill Smith, is still on staff. The lab school concept is one that Andrews strongly believes in and he said he can’t wait to see the projects and ideas that teachers and Millikin staff and students come up with together.
“(Students) are used to people in and out of their classrooms,” he said. “I think it’s going to enhance the educational atmosphere. It’s going to reduce the student/adult ratio. It’s going to be fantastic.”
Millikin and Dennis have long had a relationship because of their proximity, Andrews said, but the formal lab school relationship will take that one step further.
“I want Dennis to be the best school in Illinois,” he said. “I think we have the resources and the personnel to do that. The students are meeting our expectations. I’m amazed. This is a fantastic place to be and I’m really lucky to be here.”