History on the Hill: Eliot-Pearson Children’s School combines educational research, teacher training

Julie Dobrow, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies as well as the Communications and Media Studies program, poses for a portrait outside her office on May 12, 2015. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

As a laboratory-demonstration program for the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School (EPCS) is not only a place of learning for children aged 3 through 7 but also a place of learning for graduate students and researchers.

This relationship between Tufts and EPCS developed over several decades. According to a 2014 department document chronicling Eliot-Pearson’s history, EPCS began in 1922 as the Ruggles Street School and Training Center in Roxbury, a teacher-training school with 15 enrolled children. Four years later, it became the Nursery Training School of Boston. 

Initially an independent school in Boston, it began its partnership with Tufts in 1951 through the College of Special Studies and emphasized tenets of child development and teacher education. In 1955, the school underwent another name change, transforming into the EPCS.

According to Eliot-Pearson Children’s School Director Hanna Gebretensae, this partnership makes for an active and exciting community.

“There’s always something happening and it’s all vibrant, it’s learning, it’s making mistakes, it’s taking risks and it’s figuring them out and problem solving,” she said.

Today, EPCS serves 62 children in four different classrooms: two preschool classrooms for ages 3 and 4, a kindergarten classroom and a combined classroom for first and second graders, according to Gebretensae.

The students who attend the school must undergo an application process for entry. This application process, Gebretensae said, heavily emphasizes creating a diverse community of learners.

Gebretensae explained that diversity is integral to the school’s culture.

“It’s not only specific to race and language, but it’s about family makeup, socioeconomic diversity, gender, sexual orientation, so it’s diversity in every which way,” she said. “We want this diversity in this classroom so that it is not something we try to teach them but rather a way of life.”

EPCS also reflects its commitment to diversity in its enrollment of children with ‘special rights,’ varying from mild to moderate, who make up around 20 percent of the school’s students. Gebretensae explained EPCS’s use of the term ‘special rights,’ used in lieu of ‘special needs.’

“We believe that it’s not just a need, it’s a right for every child regardless of their ability to get the best that they can get,” Gebretensae said.

Gebretensae said that within each classroom, there is one head teacher who is accompanied by, on average, two graduate students.

“We have head teachers who are sort of the master teachers,” she said. “They will have been teaching from anywhere from 20 to 30 years. They’re very seasoned, so their main goal is to be the main teachers in the classroom … but they’re also mentors to the grad students who come to the department to do their internship here.”

Since the school is host to many research projects and as many as 500 student observations per semester, the selection process for teachers is also unique, according to Gebretensae.

EPCS Staff Assistant Jennifer Cavazos explained that being a teacher in a lab school requires more than prior teaching experience or training.

“It takes a very unique individual and teacher to be working in the lab classroom. Not only are you being observed, but you’re hosting research,” Cavazos said.

In addition, teachers attend a meeting each month to prepare them for the upcoming research in their classrooms, according to Gebretensae.

“We have teachers’ meetings, which happen every month,” Gebretensae said. “Part of what we discuss is how do we work with the research coming up and how do we manage that. It serves as an orientation [for the teachers].”

These meetings are crucial, as research is the key function of a lab school. EPCS hosts not only Tufts-affiliated researchers but also Tufts graduate students completing their theses, researchers from other Boston colleges such as Boston College, MIT and Harvard and also frequent international students and researchers, Cavazos said.

Cavazos explained that the relationship between researchers and EPCS is a reciprocal one.

“We give a lot, and we gain a lot. We provide an immense service to what’s happening in the university and the greater university community, but we’re receiving so much,” Cavazos said. “We’re the recipients of what’s happening here with our own university. It’s directly impacting our teachers and our children, and then we’re giving back.”

Tufts faculty also use EPCS as a resource. Julie Dobrow, senior lecturer at Eliot-Pearson, has been researching gender, race, ethnicity and age across children’s animation programming for years. The three-fold project began in 1994 when Dobrow and her colleague, Associate Professor Chip Gidney, a sociolinguist, became intrigued by the portrayal of different characters in media.

After cataloguing over 1,500 characters from predominantly children’s television shows, Dobrow’s research found patterns of stereotyping across the programs. According to Dobrow, this pattern was consistent over time.

“One of the first things we came [up] with was that the ‘bad guys’ had non-American accents, and we found that very consistently across the years,” Dobrow said. “Sometimes they’re discernible accents and sometimes they’re just non-American. The point seems to be some kind of othering.”

For the project’s third stage, Dobrow and Gidney plan on using the Eliot-Pearson School as a pilot study for a large-scale national research project. This stage revolves around analyzing how children catalog the stereotyping of certain types of characters, Dobrow said.

“We will be showing children still shots from old animated shows that they won’t necessarily have any association with, and we will be asking the children about the characters. ‘Are they a good guy? Who’s the bad guy? How do you know that? Who’s strong? Who’s weak?’” Dobrow explained.

The second part of this stage concerns the sociolinguistic findings of the research. Mirroring the first part of the stage, Dobrow and her fellow researchers plan to present the children with audio files of certain characters to analyze their responses.

“[The children] will have characters with various dialects saying things pretty normally, like, ‘Can you please pass the popcorn?’ We’re going to see what children say about the character [based on their voice],” Dobrow said.

While research abounds at EPCS, Gebretensae emphasized that the school is, first and foremost, about the children. She added that children also benefit from the research that takes place in their school.

“There’s so much richness [the researchers] bring into the classroom because they have all this knowledge and cutting-edge research,” she said. “The kids learn from that about risk taking, being creative, problem solving, critical thinking. All those kinds of things happen because everyone around them actually does that.”

The children also benefit from the other Tufts departments and resources that the school can use to enrich the education it offers, according to Cavazos. For example, she pointed to the educational effects that the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts brought to students by teaching first and second graders how to code and program robots.

“University students are learning a ton about educating and about building for this age bracket, and we’re benefiting with this amazing program with 7-year-olds writing code,” she said. “And that’s typical. That’s a typical thing to happen here.”

Gebretensae is most proud of the depth and breadth of the education offered at Eliot-Pearson.

“The other thing is the innovation of how we teach here and how we engage not only children but [also] teachers themselves and the families,” she said. “How we build this community of learners at the school is something I’m very proud of.”

Cavazos said that while the parents of the students often do not know what kind of research their children will be participating in, they often come in with high expectations.

“That’s the magic of Eliot-Pearson,” Cavazos said. “They know they’re going to get something good and they have this expectation, but I’ve learned that family involvement and community makes it that much more special.”