Otters are the logical place to start when learning the letter “o.” Megan Anecharico, one of two teachers for St. James Academy’s (SJA) new PreK program for four-year-olds, learned that her young students weren’t that familiar with the otter, though. But they were excited to learn more about the water-loving creatures.
Shortly after the morning lesson on the letter, she scoured SJA’s library for books. “I found a fictional book about a little otter and his family who held hands every night so they wouldn’t drift away from each other in the sea,” she explains. “We loved the story, and one of the students asked if real otters do that.”
That question inspired an impromptu class research project on otters. Her 11 budding zoologists – SJA’s second PreK class also has 11 students with both teachers sharing an assistant – discovered that, yes indeed, otters do hold each other’s paws every night. Delighted, her students took it from there.
During exploration time that day, the part of SJA’s PreK curriculum devoted to free choice and child-motivated learning activities, each student chose to create an otter puppet. “They reenacted things we had learned about the cute creatures, holding their babies, swirling around in kelp, etc.,” Anecharico recalls with a smile. “As teachers, we took their questions, their interests, and went with it. Learning is not always getting to the next level. Sometimes it’s about enriching our lives with something new and interesting.”
SJA’s PreK opened its doors at the Episcopal independent school in Monkton school last September. The new preschool program immediately embraced SJA’s focus on student-led learning and hands-on opportunities to take intellectual risks for its established K-8 program. “[At SJA], we rejoice in letting kids be kids while at the same time exposing them to new experiences, new knowledge, and new ideas,” Anecharico says.
The genesis of the PreK program is in response to SJA’s lower and middle school. “ We decided to add PreK to enhance the excellence of what will follow in our K-8 program,” explains Lori Dembo, Lower School Head. “We know what they need to learn to be successful and want to begin their education at an earlier age in order to have them ready for our Kindergarten.” Plus, she says, many current parents and faculty and staff were requesting a program for four-year-olds. SJA’s program offers half- and full-day PreK options and an afterschool program open until 6 p.m.
Dembo and her colleagues shaped the program using the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Students benefit from open-ended questioning strategies and projects, as well as movement throughout their day, in class and across the SJA campus. Whenever possible, the two PreK teachers incorporate nature into the academic day and lessons – easy to do on SJA’s almost-90-acre campus in Monkton, replete with rolling hills, open fields, playing fields, woods, outdoor classroom, and playground (but, alas, no otter ponds). The boys and girls also participate in SJA’s all-school and all-community events, including weekly Chapel at the St. James Church, recreational sports, Jingle Bell Junction, The Christmas Pageant, and others. “Our PreK students get to experience our whole school and all the extra-curriculars SJA offers,” explains Lori Dembo, Lower School Head. “Many preschools are fairly limited in land space, playground equipment and/or size.”
And many don’t have 4th grade buddies in the classroom each week, giving hugs and high-fives and helping with reading and a variety of classroom projects. Each PreK student is matched with one or two 4th graders. “It has been quite remarkable watching these relationships grow and strengthen since the beginning of the year,” Courtney Fox, PreK teacher, says. “Our students jump for joy when they know they will be spending time with their buddies!” (And they love to greet them when they see them on their campus adventures.)
Parents Angela and Joe Edel are thrilled with the program for their daughter who attends the half-day program. “Academically, she’s grown in leaps and bounds,” Angela says. “She really feels a part of the larger school.” The Edels’ older daughter is in Kindergarten, and the sisters enjoy recess together. “Both our daughters’ teachers individualize the instruction for each student and truly care for them.”
Dembo calls the PreK special subjects “game-changers,” especially weekly lessons in French and Spanish. “Being exposed to two languages per year at such a young age is wonderful for future acquisition of languages.” Additional weekly specials include art, gym, library, music, and computer lab, each taught by experts in those disciplines, and the PreK classes participate in Chapel with the rest of the school.
Part of the growth for the students is changing classrooms and teachers for special classes, just like their older counterparts. “It’s a big thing to do as a four-year-old student, yet, our students do it with ease, and I feel like they gain so much from the experience,” Anecharico says. “They are not stuck in one space all day and can experience different teachers and be stimulated by different learning environments and teaching styles.” Those environments include tech and computer labs, a maker space, science labs, a gym with climbing walls and tumbling mats, art rooms, and a multimedia studio where all SJA students, including the PreK classes, make morning announcements.
Creating meaningful moments is central to the PreK program. Take the recent, sensory-filled science lesson. After placing little hands in ice-cold water to simulate Arctic waters, they immediately plunged their hands into a Crisco-filled plastic bag (whale “blubber”) for warmth.
Edel remembers well the drive home that day: “Our daughter told me all about the whale blubber. It really stuck with her.” A few days later, the Edel family was watching Happy Feet, an animated movie about penguins. “She could list all the Arctic animals, what they eat, and how they survive. It’s the hands-on learning that is really helping her gain knowledge and retain the information.”
Exactly the goal, Anecharico says, of such messy, memorable PreK experiences, adding that their mission at SJA goes well beyond Kindergarten readiness. “We want our students to find joy in new discoveries,” Anecharico explains.”
Visit saintjamesacademy.org/prek for more information or contact Katie Wareheim, Director of Admission and Enrollment Management at 410-568-7563.