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Multiple paths for a pilot preschool

Bilingual teaching is just part of the curriculum at Rutgers' innovative early-childhood center.

Teaching assistant Keilix Padilla with (from left) Destiny Boykin, Aurbrey Rodriguez, and Daizsha Snyder at the John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy in Camden. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
Teaching assistant Keilix Padilla with (from left) Destiny Boykin, Aurbrey Rodriguez, and Daizsha Snyder at the John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy in Camden. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)Read more

Sitting in a tall wooden chair with his feet hanging a foot above the floor, 4-year-old Sameen Abdul-Haqq proudly held up his Batman painting - a blend of black and blue lines on white paper - and fielded questions from his preschool classmates at the John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy.

Sameen answered all queries the same: "Batman."

The lesson was meant to get children comfortable presenting thoughts to their peers, their teacher later explained.

The next time Sameen gets up in front of the class, however, he will likely be asked to respond in Spanish.

The academy, a new infant-through-preschool center on the Rutgers-Camden campus, conducts classes in Spanish three days week and in English the other two.

The dual-language approach is just one innovation in the popular pilot program that merges early-childhood education and university research. It opened with 126 children in September and has attracted about 400 to a waiting list.

The center was designed by Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, LEAP Academy University Charter School founder and a Rutgers distinguished professor. Funded with grants, private donations, and appropriations from the Camden City School District, it serves low-income families from the city.

"Kids were coming into our schools with so many learning deficiencies," Bonilla-Santiago said. "They weren't ready."

She wants the academy to anchor a three-block educational pipeline along Cooper Street - progressing through LEAP Elementary School, LEAP Academy High School, and Rutgers-Camden. A LEAP Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) high school will be housed at a recently purchased building across the street.

It is scheduled to open in September.

Rutgers-Camden faculty and students can observe students in most classrooms through one-way windows. The facility is an extension of the university's first-in-the-nation doctoral program in early-childhood studies, which made its debut in 2007, Rutgers-Camden spokesman Michael Sepanic said.

"It's a unique living laboratory for Rutgers professors and students to conduct research across multiple platforms such as psychology, cognitive development, behavioral studies," Sepanic said.

Center hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. to accommodate working parents and match the extended hours at the other LEAP schools, which have classes until 5:30 p.m. The youngest students' day includes multiple nap times.

So far, the academy's curriculum seems popular, attracting a waiting list even before the school opened.

Two lotteries were held for parents who fit the LEAP model: City residents who want their children to go to college and are willing to help them.

Most of the infants' and toddlers' parents qualify for a free New Jersey Cares for Kids voucher program for working parents and full-time students, Bonilla-Santiago said. Some parents say that even if they don't qualify for vouchers, the center is still affordable.

Camden City school board member Sean Brown pays $175 weekly for his 7-month-old son.

He and his wife, Keshia Montgomery, chose it for the price and modern curriculum.

"It's very interactive," Brown said. "He claps; he likes to be picked up."

The LEAP model, Bonilla-Santiago said, is to work with families, not just individual students.

Enrollment preference was given to children who had a sibling in a LEAP Academy school.

"We don't want to have one child here and three at Camden High," she said. "We're changing the home attitude as well."

The academy, like the district's 160 other preschool classrooms, follows the Creative Curriculum System for Preschool. The curriculum is designed for children with diverse backgrounds and skill levels and concentrates on social, emotional, and cognitive development by keeping children engaged. Students also practice motor and language skills and receive any needed counseling.

For example, preschoolers at the academy are kept busy looking at books while waiting in line for lunch.

Despite having to follow the Creative Curriculum in order to receive school district funding - at a cost of $12,000 per preschool student - the academy tweaked the curriculum to require a dual-language model.

"We're in a global market," Bonilla-Santiago said.

Offering Chinese or Arabic could have been equally educational, she said, but Spanish made the most sense.

"It is so difficult to get good teachers" for other languages, Bonilla-Santiago said. "And there's so many Latin American countries."

Of the 126 children currently enrolled, 50 percent are African American and 45 percent Hispanic, similar to the city's most recent census numbers - 43 percent African American, 46 percent Hispanic.

"Whenever possible, a dual-language program is optimal, as children make the greatest gains when both their home language and English are supported in the program," Ellen Wolock, who heads the Division of Early Childhood Education at the New Jersey Department of Education, wrote in an e-mailed statement. Other cities in the state, such as Union City and Elizabeth, have dual-language preschools.

Almost everything in the academy's classrooms is labeled in Spanish and English. Multicultural holidays also are celebrated.

At last week's holiday party, children were visited by Santa and the Three Kings, popular in Latin American countries.

The Three Kings, portrayed by LEAP Academy seniors, came into the classrooms with a group of musicians singing in Spanish and playing traditional instruments. Santa, portrayed by a LEAP Academy father, visited later.

Bonilla-Santiago said the party reinforced LEAP's themes of pride in school and family.

"How you start breaking the cycle of poverty is getting a student through school and college," she said. "I tell them, 'Go out there [to college] and tell them you are from Camden, the most dangerous city, the city no one else believes in.' "