Pre-school Profile: The Learning Center

The Learning Center at Philipstown Recreation Disguises Learning in Fun

By Alison Rooney

Providing its youngest citizens with a safe, nurturing preschool program has always been a component of Philipstown Recreation’s mandate to serve the community. For years now, its nursery school, formally known as The Learning Center (TLC) at Philipstown Recreation, has opened its doors to the children of local residents. In the fall of 2003 the program moved from premises in Continental Village to the current large, bright, welcoming space located within the Claudio Marzollo Community Center right near Rec’s administrative office.

The Learning Center’s Sally Brady, left, Kendell Helbock and Katelynn Merandy. Photo by A. Rooney

Sally Brady, a Cold Spring resident with two older children of her own, has been the director of the center for over six years. She is assisted by two other staff members, Kendall Helbock, now nearing her 10th year there, and Katelynn Merandy, an “almost eight years now” veteran. Brady calls them “wonderful. We all have the same vision, and I couldn’t ask for better people.”

All three are there throughout the center’s opening hours, which are Monday through Friday from 9 to 11:45 a.m., September through June. There used to be an afternoon program, but that no longer exists. Children, ages 3 to 5, may attend on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday basis or Tuesday/Thursday, or all five days. Currently the center which has had years with waiting lists, and has a 20 child maximum, has just a few openings for the Tuesday/Thursday slots only, which is atypical, according to Brady.

Children are expected to attend for the full school year and must be potty-trained in order to enroll. Attracting a mix of Cold Spring and Garrison families, the program is also open to non-Philiptown residents, but at a higher fee. This year’s group has a younger median age than most, as there were a record 18 graduates last year.

Brady has defined goals for their program, the definitive one being for each child to develop a positive attitude towards school. “If they come in excited, we are doing our job,” she says. “We want them to be happy about learning, and also to be able to be themselves; we want to see them grow. And they do. The difference between [behavior from] September to June is tremendous: they learn to clean up, to sit and listen longer to stories and just develop more patience overall.”

The endless fascination of sand and water at The Learning Center. Photo by A. Rooney

Brady and her staff seek to make The Learning Center a comfortable, safe environment where learning can take place in a way not always obvious to the children. Brady describes it as gentle solutions, for example “words are important — not hurting feelings. We’ll address a problem by asking a child ‘What are your choices? What can you do instead?’”

All of the children’s activities take place within one very large room, and while there isn’t specific age division and 3- and 4-year-olds mix, the staff modifies what each child is doing by what level they’re able to do, assisting on a more-or-less basis, allowing each child to accomplish an activity either aided or not.

Brady cites a letter-learning exercise: “The whole group gets asked whether they want to learn the letter ‘A.’ The older kids come over and we’ll work with them on the writing skill. In the meantime we’ve hidden letter ‘A’s around the room, and the little ones can search and learn to recognize it, so all needs are met.”

The day is structured, with center time generally starting the day off, followed by art, story time, snack, and then a show and tell for all. The day usually concludes with 20 minutes to a half hour of physical activity time, either in the outdoor play area attached to the center, or in the full-size gym just down the corridor, where games are sometimes structured and sometimes hula hooping leads the way. At other times it’s as simple as dancing in the classroom.

The morning concludes with an end-of-the-day meeting in which everyone expresses themselves. “We sneak in things like waiting their turn, speaking nicely and loudly, and forming complete sentences,” says Brady, who adds that they keep it “loving, but structured. We find that most of the parents are in line with the philosophy of the school.”

Visits from members and institutions of the community enhance the program; the fire department always visits, as does Maureen McGrath from Butterfield Library, who sometimes comes in to read stories. During December there is a family theme, and many family members come and share their talents. There is always an open-door policy at TLC and, for example, Grandma or Grandpa is always welcome to come in and read to the group.

Photo by A. Rooney

As with the other area preschools, Haldane and sometimes Garrison kindergarten staff pay a visit in the spring to observe the older children and put them at ease about the transition ahead.

The Learning Center benefits from the proximity of the Rec office, from whom they feel well supported. “Someone’s here in a heartbeat when we need it, and there’s never a problem getting what I need,” says Brady. In turn, conscious of their responsibilities to the town, Brady tries to be cost-conscious, using many recycled materials.

For more information, or to arrange a visit, contact Philipstown Recreation at 845-424-4618.

This article is part of a series on Philipstown’s nursery and pre-K schools.

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