Do you know what floats or sinks in a bucket of water?
What about a paper clip? A marble? A straw?
If all these questions got you thinking, then you might be interested in becoming a preschool student at one of four Rochester Catholic schools — St. Monica’s, St. Andrew’s, Holy Family or Cathedral School at Holy Rosary. All four schools use such questions to develop their preschoolers’ vocabulary and learning skills through a program called Centers of Excellence.
The program is a cooperative effort between the Diocese of Rochester’s Department of Catholic Schools and the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester and the Warner Center for Professional Development and Education Reform. The program’s components include a hands-on curriculum for preschoolers; professional development for teachers and administrators; in-class mentoring of teachers by university professionals; and a family-literacy initiative. The initiative includes the establishment of a preschool library at each school; field trips to museums; and workshops for parents to help them better interact with their preschool children.
The Warner School received a $3.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Reading First Program in October 2004 to institute Centers of Excellence, according to information from the university. The program uses a curriculum called ScienceStart! that was co-developed by Dr. Lucia French, an associate professor at the Warner School and Centers of Excellence director. She said ScienceStart! uses children’s curiosity about the world to help them develop their language and literacy skills.
"We know that children under 6 or 7 need to have personal experiences to learn things," she said. "Young children are biologically prepared to learn about the everyday world."
According to a curriculum guidebook, a new theme is introduced to students each week. For example, one week might be about characteristics of solids. Suggested activities include learning about wood, and the goal will be to get the children to use such words as hammer and nail. The teacher reads students such books as Tool Box by Gail Bibbons, and the children participate in such exercises as discussing the book, finding wooden objects in the classroom and talking about what kinds of things are made of wood. The curriculum encourages teachers to demonstrate the use of tools and to give children a chance to work with wood scraps.
The result of all this is children aren’t just listening to a teacher read them a book or tell them to be quiet or stand in line, French noted. It’s teaching children how to scientifically observe the world and report what they’ve learned.
Since Centers of Excellence began operating, teachers and administrators at the four participating Catholic schools said they’ve noticed much improvement in the learning skills of their preschoolers.
Mary Ellen Wagner, principal of Holy Family, praised the program for encouraging children to take home books to read. Another administrator noted that the children’s recognition of words and letters was "phenomenal." Constance G. Berndt, coordinator of St. Andrew’s Wegmans Early Childhood Education preschool, said she’s noticed her students have become more inquisitive and conversational.
"They didn’t talk too much (before)," she said. "You had to pull it out of them."
That point was echoed by Tracy Nadler, principal at St. Andrew’s.
"They’re more verbal — their language has developed," she said of the preschoolers.
She added that her staff isn’t just simply directing the children anymore.
"They’re having a conversation with them," she said.
Kathleen Dougherty, principal of The Cathedral School at Holy Rosary, said one positive aspect of the program is its emphasis on learning from one’s home environment. She noted that the children would go out into the school’s neighborhood and collect items for study. Olena Lylak, principal of St. Monica’s, added that through the program her students are learning to cooperate better.
"Their social skills are actually developing differently because the kids sit and interact with each other," she said.