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VOL. 10 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 23, 2017

Memphis Independent Schools Offer Varied Approaches to Early Childhood Learning

By Aisling Maki

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Research has shown show early childhood education sets the foundation for academic success in elementary school, and Memphis’ independent schools boast a number of high-quality preschool programs with expert educators, innovative approaches and state-of-the-art technology.

Students in Hutchison School’s early childhood education program help grow vegetables on the school’s farm, part of a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to learning that encourages self-directed, exploratory learning. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

But the foundation of early childhood learning never changes. As beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers said, “Play is really the work of childhood.”

Elizabeth Jordan, early childhood head at Hutchison School, said that’s her motto. Play marries creativity with curiosity, but Jordan said children become less likely to express their curiosity once the preschool years pass.

“Research shows that children dramatically reduce their questioning after the age of 5,” she said. “In the early childhood years, children are continually asking ‘why’ questions. They are trying to figure out what and who they are in the greater scheme of the world. “

At Hutchison, a private all-girls college preparatory school at 1740 Ridgeway Road that serves about 900 girls in preschool through high school, girls are encouraged to ask questions from the start and to retain their curiosity.

“We instill the confidence that an inquisitive and curious journey filled with numerous questions and the quest for answers will lead to well-rounded future leaders,” Jordan said.

Hutchison has 120 girls between ages 2 and 4 enrolled in in its early childhood education program, and a faculty of 20, not including its specialty teachers for dance, library, music and creative drama, science lab, Spanish and Chinese.

The school uses a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to learning, which allows children to grow as individuals in a cooperative, supportive environment. Jordan said this social constructivist philosophy encourages each girl to engage in self-directed, exploratory learning to gain both knowledge of herself and the world around her.

The Reggio approach follows the girls’ interests to plan learning experiences, which might include venturing outside to explore the school’s 52-acre campus or help grow vegetables on the school’s farm.

Jordan said each girl “will learn to think critically, creatively and intuitively while working cooperatively with peers and teachers. We want to help them see that this is a world filled with wonder and amazement.”

Midtown’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral School (ICCS), located at 1725 Central Ave., also takes an Individualized approach to educating its youngest students, with an added faith-based and meditative component.

The Catholic school, which is co-ed from pre-K through eighth grade and has an all-girls high school, places a major focus on the practice of mindfulness, starting in preschool.

The entire school begins each morning with four minutes of mindfulness practice, breathing deeply and centering themselves in the present moment. Harvard research has shown mindfulness can improve physical and mental health, and cause changes in the brain in just eight weeks.

“It helps them with the ability to have self-control and to think before reacting, so they respond instead of react,” said Joy Copous, lead pre-K3 teacher of ICCS’ Early Childhood Education program. “It helps their test scores later on and it helps them feel safer, calmer and more peaceful.”

Art, library, music, physical education and Spanish immersion classes, which take place three times a week, are also part of the curriculum, and the program pairs preschoolers with elementary school student “buddies” for reading, activities and playing outside, increasing their cognitive and social skills.

ICCS has many students whose first language is not English, and includes Chinese, Vietnamese and native Spanish speakers. Copous said she had a Chinese child who didn’t speak English, but was, by the end of the year, fluently speaking English, Spanish and Chinese.

“We have great diversity and it’s growing especially in the pre-K,” said Karen Gephart, principal of ICCS, whose student body is about 50 percent non-Catholic.

She said ICCS puts a significant focus on creating a joyful learning environment.

“There are too many children in our education systems who just don’t enjoy learning. Our little children are a very joyful bunch, I think, because our teachers are too. “

This school year, ICCS opened its new Early Childhood Center, a $4 million, two-story structure that houses preschool through second-grade classrooms, and includes an art room, media center, size-appropriate facilities, including bathrooms designed for little people, and interactive display systems called Aquos boards.

Since opening the new building, pre-K enrollment has doubled, with two pre-K3 and two pre-K4 classes.

Lausanne Collegiate School places focus on preparing students for college – starting that pipeline in preschool – and life in a global environment. The school educates students from more than 57 countries, and preschoolers learn Spanish and Mandarin each day.

The co-curricular teachers educate students from the time they enter the preschool all the way through fourth grade, and teaching those students for seven years helps build on the foundations of subjects such as art, music, language and physical education.

The preschool has 82 students and nine classroom teachers, as well as two foreign language teachers and five co-curricular teachers. This makes for small class sizes – there are no more than seven students in pre-K classes, 10 in junior kindergarten and 12 in senior kindergarten. This allows for customized curriculum tailored to individual student needs.

“Our students learn through project-based learning in our early childhood program,” said Kara Barbour, head of lower school at Lausanne. “They work on a particular unit or project for several weeks. This type of learning teaches them to dig deep, work collaboratively and ask questions. They learn through exploration and trial and error.”

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