FORT MILL -- Please, do not refer to the Fort Mill school district Preschool Child Development Center as day care.
"It's school," insists Madison Pigford, 5.
Madison is one of about 20 precocious 4- and 5-year-olds who attend the laboratory school at Fort Mill High School, where both preschoolers and teenagers have a potential life-changing experience.
The teenagers learn about early childhood by interning with the children and decide whether it's the career for them. They can earn up to six college credits through York Technical College while still in high school and become eligible for a state child-care credential.
For the preschoolers, the sky's the limit.
"I design learning experiences that take the children into in-depth learning," said center director Sharon Mitchell. "Their vocabulary and thinking processes are very high quality. There is no ceiling. Every day, parents come in and say, 'They're teaching me things I didn't know.'"
For example, Amber Grace, 5, sitting on the floor reading a book with one of the teenagers, knows the difference between a sea turtle and other turtles. She also knows that the penguin in the book is not just any penguin. It's a Macaroni penguin, an actual kind of penguin.
Madison's favorite page in the book she's reading is the one emblazoned with the number "17." The page is torn because it is so well loved. Madison said she liked the brightly colored marbles on it.
Taryn Crow, a senior who took the fourth and final course in the early childhood class cluster, said many teenage girls take the class for baby-sitting purposes. She used to be "horrible with kids," she said, but the classes and a high school internship at an area preschool sealed her decision to work with young children.
Maggie Ellis, a sophomore, wants to become a cosmetologist, but after taking the first class, signed up for the second.
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to take the third and fourth course," she said. "I like going next door and working with the kids. I'm kind of confused (about my major) right now."
Pam McIntyre, who teaches the high school early childhood classes in addition to being an instructor at York Tech, worked with 4- and 5-year-olds for many years.
"Working with young children is my first love," she said, "but I felt I could have an impact on people who want to work with children. I think you reach a chapter in your career where you want to teach others what you love."
She wishes more male teenagers would take the program.
"We have a real shortage of male figures in early childhood," she said. "They need male role models."
Tony Fewell, a senior and the only guy in the fourth course cluster, said he originally took an early childhood class because it was a good way to meet girls.
"Then, I found out I had a knack for it," he said. "When I learned more, I decided this is where I want to be."
The children love Tony, hugging his knees as he reads "The Little Engine That Could."
Caleb Page, 5, said that when he's 16, "I'm going to buy him some pizza."
Tony plans to pursue his career at York Tech when he graduates.
The program, accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has a two-year waiting list. It accepts children of district employees first, and then children living in Fort Mill. Tuition is $24 per day, based on the number of days in the school year.
Community members and Fort Mill High students in career clusters other than early childhood sometimes share their expertise with the preschoolers in areas such as foreign language and engineering.
The children also have their own little blue bus with a car seat for each of them. They've taken 16 field trips so far this year.
Madison already is counting on field trip No. 17.