So much of the news today deals with violence, war, hate and scandal. Thus, it is refreshing to discover an oasis in the desert of human existence that speaks of idealism, hope and human transformation.
A number of months ago, I was flying to Rochester in a rubber band plane out of Islip, where everyone is smotheringly close to one another. I sat next to a man who knew me from the community. We began talking about why we were flying at 6:30am in this sardine can. I was going to speak in a public high school in Rochester. He was going to Albany to lobby for children with special needs.
We spent the forty-five minute flight talking about education, children and teenagers. It was most refreshing. This caring, experienced educator had not lost his passion for kids or his belief that we can make a difference. As we were de-planing, he invited me to come and see what he and his caring staff do five days a week for some very special children.
A number of months passed and finally a few weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting this little oasis in the midst of our wasteland of human potential. The hands on, comprehensive care for young children disabled and non-disabled from birth to five years of age that I witnessed was both disarming and inspirational.
From the moment I walked into the building, I knew it was a special place. Everyone I met had a smile and a warm, sincere greeting for their guest. The halls were filled with beautiful artwork and encouraging themes. The climate was electric with positive energy. Every class I visited, from the little babies to the five year olds, from the very cooperative children to those who had intense difficulties, I found compassion, competence and phenomenal learning taking place.
"Just Kids" Early Childhood Learning Center is a private pre-school program for young children. It offers comprehensive early intervention and a pre-school program including a wide range of diagnostic, therapeutic and educational programming. It uses the "whole child" learning model.
The curriculum at "Just Kids" focuses on all areas of development - social, emotional, cognitive and language. The program philosophy is based on the belief that all young children can learn and that learning is best supported through play and planned learning experiences.
The staff and administration at "Just Kids" believe that learning occurs at different rates for different children. They strongly assert that a child's learning environment and experiences significantly impact on their life-long development. They further believe that the best outcomes for children occur when families and professionals work together in partnership to meet the unique needs of the child and the family.
"Just Kids" believes that learning is an interactive process that requires and emphasizes language and socialization. Activities are planned in a learner-centered way to support the differing needs of young children. This creative and dedicated faculty provide a supportive learning environment that offers opportunities for children to use their imagination, explore, socialize and participate in dynamic language activities and play.
The curriculum clearly offers a wide range of concrete activities that offer a meaningful context for learning. Probably the greatest gift this staff offers small children just beginning the great journey is an environment that places great importance on listening, problem-solving and building a positive sense of self and trust in their environment.
Everywhere we walked unannounced, I encountered small children with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, truly learning. Equally as important, I saw something else that really touched my heart. They were happy - children and staff were really smiling. Nothing is more heartwarming than seeing little people under the age of five holding hands and smiling with their whole bodies. Their smiles were contagious.
As I drove back from this wellspring of life and human transformation in Middle Island, I could not help but intensely reflect on this powerful experience. Initially, I expected to see a pre-school program for special needs kids. Instead I encountered a refreshing alternative to traditional pre-school education. "Just Kids" offers a challenging model to anyone who really believes education should be a holistic experience. The empowerment I witnessed among these little people was overwhelming.
As I reflected on my experience, the other thing I found refreshing was the initial conversation I had with three key administrators at "Just Kids." Their idealism, enthusiasm, creativity, insight and love of children was incredible. They really set the tone and created the positive climate I encountered. Wherever I walked, from the professional and clinical staff to all of the support staff, I met men and women who loved their work. This was evidenced by how they interacted with the students and with each other.
"Just Kids" offers a powerful blueprint for educating children, not just for children with special needs, but children of every age and stage of education. Their commitment to the "whole child" is key. Their approach seems to have gotten it right. We need to emulate what they are doing in this creative little learning center for pre-schools in our elementary, junior and high schools.
If we really believe children are our national treasure, then we ought to start treating them accordingly. Too many of our schools have become wastelands of human potential. We need to re-focus and become more committed to the total person and shape, re-shape and create learning models that build on that key principle.
A healthy environment is a key ingredient to a positive learning place. An environment free of violence and hate, one that is clean, happy and empowering. Too many schools enable our children to fail.
Over thirty years ago, before I began my teaching career, I had a very challenging professor who said that you should put your best teachers in your pre-school and primary grades. They will make all the difference. Initially, as a new teacher in a junior high school, I did not fully understand what he meant. Over the year, I slowly understood. A few weeks ago I was once again reminded how right he was!
Thank you professor and "Just Kids" for that important lesson!