NIAGARA FALLS -- High School senior Taramarie K. Mitravich skips school on Fridays so she can help teach the likes of Kaesean Caffee.
Kaesean, age 5, loves to drape himself over Taramarie's back shoulder as Taramarie reads books to him and some of his kindergarten classmates.
It's just the kind of relationship educators in the Niagara Falls School District had in mind when they developed the high school's 12th Grade Career Exploration Team program.
The program allows seniors to dabble in a number of professional fields and get a feeling for what they might want to take up in college. Just as importantly, it shows young pupils, many in dire need of role models, what can be accomplished if they work hard in class and stay in school.
"Our goal is to give kids as many different experiences as possible before they go to college . . .," said Joseph Bellonte, director of the district's Smaller Learning Commun- ities Grant program. "Niagara Falls High School is not a destination for our students. It's a launch pad to their future."
At 18, Taramarie is one of some 100 Niagara Falls High School seniors who opted to do a teaching internship in the city's schools for up to 10 Fridays this year. She has recently been assigned to Niagara Street Elementary School.
"Today I'm helping them spell out and identify words, write out the alphabet and play memory games and read them books," she said on a Friday last month. "They seem to be enjoying it. . . . They're very enthusiastic, very nice and very well behaved. They're adorable."
Kaesean delighted in the extra attention.
"She's a good teacher," he said. "She helps me with words. She talks to me and plays with me and helps me on the computer."
Taramarie wants to study graphic arts in college.
"I don't want to be a teacher, per se," she said, "but I do like helping children, seeing them happy and getting involved with them in learning. Teaching's not the exact career that I want to pursue, but maybe somewhere down the line I might end up teaching art. You never know."
For David J. Zajac, 17, a senior who has long planned to become a teacher, the internship program has reinforced his resolve.
"I've helped teach at Cataract Elementary School this year, but now I'm at LaSalle Prep[aratory School], where I help teach social studies," he said. "That's what I want to do, teach at the secondary level."
David also said he is teaching Spanish to honors classes at Harry F. Abate Elementary School on Wednesdays in another internship-like program called "Hola."
"I'm doing this because I wanted to get some hands-on experience and actually get to see what its like before I actually go to college to be a teacher," he said. "I don't want to get out of college and end up asking myself, 'Why did I do this?' This program has made me sure I really want to do it."
Christine Farino, a Falls High School English teacher who helped develop the teacher internship program, said it serves a dual purpose.
"Our kids find out what teaching is really like and whether that's something they might want to do with their futures. It also gives them an opportunity to do something for the community," Farino said.
Farino said Niagara Street Principal Paulette Mombert-Pierce triggered the concept when she told her, "These [elementary] kids are in dire need of role models. Maybe we could get something going where your students could come over and sit with them and help them so that they have some incentive to stay in school and learn when they get older.
"We have a lot of high-risk students."
Farino said she and Bellonte and a number of other teachers put the program together.
High school seniors talk to the younger pupils about the importance of having an education and staying in school.
"They read to them and help them with their work, and these kids look up to them," Farino said. "They help the teacher do whatever needs to be done."
The seniors "get a good feeling," she said. "They get a high off it because now they're the ones teaching and helping someone else and being looked up to."
Bellonte said the great thing about the internship programs is "they are just as important in showing kids what they don't like" as much as what they do.
He said the school has arranged a number of student internships, including some in the field of medicine through Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.
Taramarie said the kids do look up to the student interns and like it when older kids pay attention to them.
"They had me go to lunch with them," she said. "It was very cute. They wanted to hold my hand while we were walking down the hallway. Then they were sitting in the lunchroom feeding each other food and trading stuff. They started laughing when I joined in at their gym class one day. They really liked that."
Cathy Walaszek, the kindergarten teacher Taramarie was helping, said the internship program is working well. Two interns, including Tyler Callaghan, 17, help her out.
"Sometimes I put them one-on-one if a have a student that was absent and missed some work and needs help," Walaszek said, "or if they need help with their alphabet letters or in printing their names. I can focus on most of the kids while they help the ones that are behind. They help me get a lot more done and let me pay more attention to each child than I can when I'm by myself."
While Taramarie and Tyler assisted Walaszek, seniors Brian S. Archie and Andrew G. Colangelo, both 17, helped Deborah Hicks with her first-graders.
The two were bent down on the floor with a book about vegetables, pointing to the words as a small group of youngsters read them in unison.
"It works out very well and makes my job a little easier," Hicks said. "They help the children that are struggling to read. They help reinforce that skill by reading with them. I always sit them with a child who can use the extra help so I can get other things done with the rest of the class."
Bailey Johnson, 7, is among the pupils who appreciate the extra attention.
"I like them because they are really, really nice to us, like friends. They helped me with my words," Bailey said.
Brian said the first time he came it was like an FBI interrogation.
"A couple of kids asked me a bunch of questions about my name, my age and all kinds of personal stuff. A couple little girls started to like me and kind of kept calling me over, but they didn't really want anything. I thought it was kind of funny."
While he's not sure what he will study in college, he said, the internship "is fun for me. I like working with the kids and seeing the smiles on their faces. I think they like it when we come to help them."