Early learning documentary spotlights Highland Park CAPTION Karie Angell Luc, Pioneer Press Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center teachers Tracy Sohn and Rachel Giannini peer through the doorway above student Aidan Buscher of Highland Park. CAPTION Karie Angell Luc, Pioneer Press Alice Rissman of Deerfield, right, works with her students at Highland Park Nursey School and Day Care Center, including Ayonna Simmons of North Chicago. Teacher Rachel Giannino of Chicago is at center, while from far left are students Jonathan Gonzalez of Highwood and Carson Kvasnicka of Glenview. CAPTION Karie Angell Luc, Pioneer Press Brianna Carr of Great Lakes listens with her peers at Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center, which is being featured in a national documentary on early childhood education. CAPTION Karie Angell Luc, Pioneer Press Ines Sommer of Rogers Park records footage for a national documentary at Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center May 6. On left is teacher Rachel Giannini of Chicago and on far right is teacher Alice Rissman of Deerfield. CAPTION Karie Angell Luc, Pioneer Press Ines Sommer records footage May 6 at Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center, for a documentary on early childhood education. By Karie Angell LucPioneer Press Highland Park early childhood program to be featured in major documentary on early learning By this time of the school year, the children in the Yellow Room at Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center are accustomed to seeing their teachers, Rachel Giannini, Alice Rissman and Tracy Sohn. They've also grown used to seeing filmmaker Ines Sommer, who carried a Canon camcorder May 6. As she trained her lens around the room, the students seemed unfazed by her presence, neither mugging for the camera nor staring at it while Giannini sang and strummed a guitar. The Yellow Room, which is professionally wired for sound, has become the set for a feature-length documentary focusing on early childhood education. Co-produced by the Chicago's Kindling Group and Siskel/Jacobs Productions, the documentary takes a look at the soaring costs of care for children and the importance of early learning, with the intent of spurring a national conversation on the issue. Tentatively called "No Small Matter," the documentary is expected to launch in theaters next year. Both production teams have impressive documentary records. Siskel/Jacobs Productions is well known for its most recent film, "Louder Than a Bomb," which followed four poetry teams in Chicago as they prepared for the world's biggest youth slam. It won 17 festival prizes, made Roger Ebert's list of "10 best documentaries of 2011" and was shown on OWN. Kindling Group Executive Director Danny Alpert is also lauded for his documentaries, which have aired on HBO and PBS and in countries around the world. His films have covered such subjects as homelessness, public education and teen pregnancy, and have been nominated for Academy and Emmy awards. Alpert, who was raised in Highland Park until age 15, said that his hometown turned out to be just the right place to film a portion of the documentary. (Codirector Jon Siskel of Siskel/Jacobs is also a Highland Park resident.) "One of the reasons we're here is it's a very diverse classroom, racially, socioeconomically, with a gender perspective, every kind of kid you could possibly have," Alpert said. "We really wanted to find a place that had both quality and that diversity." Alpert said he also wanted to find a place that valued safety, something that all schools must address as a first step to creating a healthy learning environment. "Highland Park is a place where kids are safe," he observed. "That's the way it was when I was growing up here until my early teens. "It was a great place to grow up." Pam Carlson, curriculum coordinator of the school, said she was very happy to be participating in the documentary. "Not only do we have this amazing classroom highlighted, but we get to be a part of an early childhood learning advocacy effort," she said. The documentary has already attracted $830,000 in support from foundations that work in the early childhood space, according to Kindling Group producer Laura Wilson. So far, it is entirely grant-funded, she added. In the final cut, Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center will serve as one example of early childhood education that works. Filmmakers are also shooting around the country, at a two-generation parent education program that primarily serves Hispanics in Waco, Tex; at a staterun infant and toddler program in Hugo, Okla.; and at a Head Start center run by a for-profit company in Las Vegas, Nev. "The heart and soul of the film — the thing that will really make it come to life — will inevitably be the characters whose stories we choose to tell," Wilson said. To that end, filmmakers are also talking to families from a variety of backgrounds, ages and income levels who are conducting their own search for the right early childhood program. As Alpert describes the documentary, it's "a pretty ambitious community engagement. "The purpose is to really get people to understand how kids work," Alpert said, explaining that the goal is to identify what kids need at an early stage in order to reach their potential. "It's also the bigger picture, if they get what they need, we get what we need as a society, and there are ramifications if they don't get it," he said. So what do they need? "They need positive relationships, and that's by both the teachers and their peers," Alpert said. "They need to be stimulated and talked to, that builds their vocabulary. "They need to be played with and nurtured and loved and given safe places," he said. Alpert said Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care, which serves children aged 3 to 5, serves as a great example of a program that succeeds at providing what kids need. "It's a gem," he said. "As soon as I walked in, this is the place I wanted to spend time." Ines Sommer said she feels much the same way. "I'm having lots of fun, because it's rare you get to spend so much time with your subjects," Sommer said. " The interaction between the teachers and the students is amazing. "As they're playing," Sommer continued, "you see huge learning process." Alpert observed quietly May 6 as Sommer filmed. "I'm lucky," he said. "I get to be in this classroom, which is inspiring, where they're getting everything they need. Children from Glenview, Highwood and Naval Station Great Lakes are included on the classroom roster. "As we complete our 64th year of providing quality early childhood programming, we are thrilled to be a part of this opportunity," said Lisa Adelmund, executive director. "The documentary depicts how children learn, their thoughts on it and how we as educators support the learning process." Filming continues through the end of the school year. Karie Angell Luc is a freelance journalist for Pioneer Press.
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