Off to a strong start
GREENWICH — The preschoolers at Gateway School play music, pet animals and pop bubble wrap. Behind the fun, dedicated teachers ensure these simple acts develop important literacy and motor skills.
Gateway is one of two all-day, yearlong programs in Greenwich accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a designation earned by only 8 percent of the nation’s preschools. Its accreditation, loyal teaching staff and willingness to work with children with developmental disorders distinguishes the preschool from others in the area.
“I truly feel we build a foundation for learning in children,” said Yenny Toone, the early care and education director for Family Centers, the private nonprofit that runs Gateway and other area preschools.
“These early years are fundamental to the success of children later on in life,” she said.
Last year, 32 youngsters graduated from Gateway, which teaches social-emotional and physical development, along with language, literacy, cognitive and math skills.
The program is open to children of all abilities, and spots are still available for 3-year-olds, Toone said. Consultants assess kids with special needs and connect families with services.
“We’re the first step,” Toone said.
Teachers also focus on social-emotional development because the preschoolers are becoming aware they have emotions and are learning how to regulate them. This part of the curriculum also prepares the kids for kindergarten.
“Once this time is past, you’re sort of playing catch up instead of having a proactive approach,” Toone said.
Gateway also has a high number of children enrolled with sensory needs, school site manager Alex Belluzzi said. As more children with sensory processing disorders enroll in the program, teachers are adapting.
If children cannot sit still during circle time, for example, teachers will apply massage techniques or spin them around, two methods to regulate children and recenter their brains.
“It’s so important that they don’t just have sensory experiences at the sensory table,” Belluzzi said.
Kids who need sense stimulation benefit from touching snow, slime and shaving cream — whatever matches the theme — or by playing with fabric-covered blocks and stomping on bubble wrap.
“We focus on the whole child,” Belluzzi said.
Greenwich has few high quality and affordable infant and toddler programs, Belluzzi said, but Gateway stands out.
Tuition is $1,400 per month, but 76 percent of families receive partial scholarships funded by Family Centers.
Once kids reach preschool age, Gateway competes with local public schools, but Belluzzi emphasized the daylong schedule that caters to working families, the educated staff and scholarships calculated based on total family income.
“We embrace diversity, and families and teachers of all cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Belluzzi said.
Full-day, yearlong preschools often struggle to retain staff because they compete with public schools, which give teachers the summer off, but not Gateway, the site manager said.
At least one teacher stays with a child through his or her time at Gateway, Belluzzi said, securing a relationship among the child, the family and the teacher.
“We have families who come back requesting a teacher their older child had,” she said.
Teacher loyalty stems in part from the support and guidance educators give to parents. For example, they help parents develop strategies to try at home, like keeping routines so kids can get from point A to point B without throwing a tantrum.
“They’re astonished how we do it in program and it’s so hard to do at home,” Toone said.
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