As a Success Academy blocks teacher who has worked with our kindergarten scholars for six years, I had always dreamed of Success having its own pre-kindergarten classes. Many of our 5-year-olds come to school for the first time lacking essential skills that would make them as school-ready as possible, such as the ability to solve problems, work through conflicts, and regulate their emotions and physical needs. When SA Harlem 1 was able to open its doors to pre-k scholars last year, I knew I wanted to be as involved as possible!
When it comes to designing new programs, Success Academy takes a purposeful and research-based approach, and preparations for pre-k were no different. A team of specialists spent months trying to find a curriculum that would match all the needs of our scholars, and while there were many programs with wonderful benefits, they couldn’t find one that was the right fit for us. So when I sat down for our first pre-k teacher training session, I was thrilled to learn that, instead, we would be borrowing the best concepts from many different programs to mix together a set of principles, goals, and plans that perfectly matched our vision. Here are three hallmarks of our pre-k:
Success Academy pre-k is play-based Our pre-k scholars spend most of their day playing! We want everything the scholars learn to be fun, interactive, and meaningful. So instead of absorbing formal lessons, our pre-k scholars do most of their learning by interacting at different learning centers during free-choice times. At a dramatic play center, scholars dress up and pretend to work at a Dunkin Donuts. They write their own books in the writing center by carefully drawing pictures and putting letters on each page. They work together with their friends to build skyscrapers in the blocks center.
While the scholars play, teachers strategically navigate the room to support them with specific learning goals, which are determined from frequent observations and interactions with the children throughout the year. It’s amazing how many foundational skills you can teach children while you play with them! Scholars are invited to the playdough table in order to build hand strength and support their fine motor skills. Children practice sorting and counting beads as we string them onto necklaces. Splashing in water at the sensory table exposes the scholars to concepts like cause and effect. Each activity is planned with a great deal of thought and aimed at developing a strong foundation upon which academic skills can be built.
It’s amazing how many foundational skills you can teach children while you play with them!
Success Academy pre-k is child-centered In all ways possible, we focus our daily routines and learning on what is best for our scholars’ developmental, physical, and emotional needs. We carefully monitor that scholars get enough wiggle breaks and rest-time to ensure they have the stamina to get through the day and that they are not sitting still for excessive amounts of time. Also, materials, such as pencils and scissors, that scholars need are clearly labeled and easily accessible to them.
Because scholars are most invested in learning when it incorporates their own interests and curiosities, we let our pre-k scholars choose the direction of our explorations and what they’d like to learn more about as often as we can. Throughout the year, we will introduce a particular topic of study and spend several weeks becoming experts in that topic. In September, as scholars excitedly collected leaves falling from the trees in our playground, we decided to plan a study all about trees. We selected read alouds that discussed how trees grow and change throughout the seasons, we sorted leaves by color, we counted acorns, we painted using sticks and branches, and we took walks to see the different kinds of trees in our neighborhood. At the end of our unit, scholars proudly celebrated their new knowledge. We created a tree museum and invited families to see what their children had made. The kids even performed a poem about trees during our Halloween parade!
Success Academy pre-k focuses on building independence and empathy for others Ultimately, the main goal of our pre-k is to prepare scholars for their formal school years. While their experiences during center play help to build a strong foundation for their upcoming academic work, we know there are many more skills they will need in order to succeed in school.
We focus on building student independence and helping scholars gain the confidence to solve problems on their own. We teach our scholars to clean up after themselves after meals and to zip their own coats before recess. We also encourage them to try helping themselves first, and if that doesn’t work, to ask a friend for help. The children take incredible pride in their weekly jobs, such as the “milk passer” or “attendance checker.” As often as possible, scholars take on tasks, which helps them develop their own sense of accountability and responsibility.
We also work hard to develop empathy and consideration for others. It’s important that our scholars care how others feel. We see our classes as one big family and hold each scholar accountable for treating classmates with kindness and respect. It’s unbelievable what a loving community we’ve built! I see precious moments on a daily basis. I often see scholars hug their friends for successfully overcoming a challenge. I watched a little girl subtly rub the back of a sad friend sitting next to her during read aloud. Scholars cheered on their friend as they encouraged her to try spinach for the first time! I only wish I had grown up in such a warm and supportive environment — perhaps I’d be eating more vegetables!
It’s unbelievable what a loving community we’ve built! I see precious moments on a daily basis.
Our pre-k scholars have come incredibly far and made so much growth in only six months. So when I recently learned that our pre-k is in jeopardy of shutting down next year, my heart nearly broke. I was saddened that we may not be able to provide access to a joyful learning environment to more families who desperately need better options. In a few years my own daughter will reach pre-k age and I was looking forward to entering the lottery. Now, I can only hope that reason prevails and that the city will give us the funding we need to continue to offer pre-k, because all families deserve to choose a school that is just right for them.