As Albemarle County tries to develop a plan to serve some of the community’s estimated 250 at-risk 4-year-olds, a local organization best known for its work with senior citizens is taking an innovative approach to early childhood education.

Located in its main facility on Hillsdale Drive, the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA) also plays home to Shining Star Preschool — a facility JABA intentionally located beside its adult care center to promote intergenerational learning.

“Aging is a lifelong process,” said Jean Bourbeau, the manager of JABA’s adult care and child development services. “We all have to work collaboratively and collectively and learn from one another.”

Licensed to teach 31 children per year, the preschool uses two teachers and two assistants who work with the children each morning in a large group setting. As the day progresses, however, the children interact with the elders during small group activities and lunch.

“The children learn a lot from the elders,” Bourbeau said. “They learn manners and how to eat at a table. And the elders have a rich history, so they get to talk to the kids about that, especially when they’re out in the garden.”

The program serves children from a mix of income levels. It accepts traditional full-pay students, as well as students referred through the county’s Department of Social Services and the United Way – Thomas Jefferson Area.

In addition to the model’s educational benefits, pairing the two services together allows for more economic and operational efficiencies, Bourbeau said.

“What happens when you have the two agencies working together is you can have the economies of scale,” she said, citing purchasing the supplies and food the two programs share as an example.

What’s more, in addition to the program’s teachers, both Bourbeau and Ben Forrest, the adult care program director, are qualified to teach preschool and work with the elders.

For example, Forrest leads music activities for both groups.

“I think it’s what we really believe
in, and I think it’s what we’re 
already doing,” Bourbeau said.

“All of a sudden, you have a few other people who can come in and provide other areas of expertise,” Bourbeau said.

Another advantage to pairing the two operations is that the elder program’s day begins before and ends after the preschool day, so any children who need to be dropped off early or picked up late are welcome to participate in the elder activities.

“It’s really beneficial to the parents,” Bourbeau said.

And the program is beneficial to the seniors as well.

Berta Hysell, who volunteers with the program, said the children not only bring her joy, but are effective at communicating with the elders — many of whom are in the earliest stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

“When [the elders] aren’t responding to much of anything else, they will respond to the children, and the children take on a leadership role with the elders,” Hysell said, noting that she also appreciates the diversity present in the classroom.

“And walking into the room and having all of these little people come up and hug you around the knees is just wonderful,” she added.

“So many children today don’t have contact with their grandparents … and we provide that,” Bourbeau added. “We take a field trip and … the child gets their senior buddy who gets to see and do the park through the eyes of a child, which is really exciting.”

According to projections from the United States Census Bureau, more than 20 percent of U.S. residents will be aged 65 and over by 2030, which marks a sharp increase from 2010’s figure of 13 percent. In 1970, that number was 9.8 percent.

While Bourbeau doesn’t foresee newly retired baby boomers volunteering to teach preschool, she said she does think it’s possible for the area’s growing elder and preschool communities — and their evolving infrastructure — to align over time to meet the needs of both populations.

“I think it’s what we really believe in, and I think it’s what we’re already doing,” Bourbeau said.

Peter Thompson, executive director of the Senior Center, agreed, saying that the growing demand for senior and preschool services presents the community with both an opportunity and a need.

“The community will lose if we don’t have a better vision and support the concept of seniors being a resource,” Thompson said, adding that because we live in a use-based society, seniors who volunteer live longer, healthier lives.

That said, Thompson characterized most intergenerational programs as “structured, short-term and episodic,” and emphasized the importance of relationship-building.

“We need to create more space, both time and physical, for the generations to engage so that they are learning from one another and build relationships,” he said.

With respect to intergenerational learning at-large, JABA’s Bourbeau believes it’s something special.

“The intergenerational concept is really catching on,” Bourbeau said, “and the kids love it because it’s really fun.”