By Nathalie Friedman
The Shelter Island Early Childhood Learning Center earlier this month launched a GoFundMe online fundraiser to raise money for the nonprofit’s early childhood program, which may be in jeopardy because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fundraiser, at gf.me/u/x8qt97, has so far raised $5,225 of a $30,000 goal, intended to cover a teacher’s salary, and enable the preschool to continue nurturing its students within a holistic, progressive learning environment, according to schools officials.
The center’s mission is to cultivate young students’ minds, while highlighting that knowledge is equally of the spirit and soul, as it is of the brain, according to the center’s literature. The school follows a responsive curriculum that uses art, science, and nature to express children’s thoughts, rather than tell them what to think.
According to two dedicated mothers who are members of the school’s board, Elizabeth Eklund and Ashley Knight, the preschool’s head teacher, Hannah Gray, has set up a child-centered classroom that is all discovery-based.
“Instead of children’s toys,” Ms. Eklund said, “she has nuts and bolts, and building materials. She encourages the use of nature to express oneself. They learn about different types of forests, natural habitats, and more, because Miss Hannah spends a lot of time letting kids take their own journey.”
Currently, the preschool is facing a financial crisis due to unforeseen challenges posed by COVID-19. The effects are both personal and financial, as students and working parents are adapting to life without their valued classroom.
“I guess I didn’t realize how important it was to my daughter, until she asked me every single day of quarantine when she can go back to school,” Ms. Eklund said.
Throughout the spread of COVID-19, Ms. Gray has continued to educate students via Zoom, without charging parents. The preschool follows the same protocol as Shelter Island’s public-school system, and hopes to re-open its doors in September. However, COVID-19 has exacerbated a financial deficit, and the nonprofit preschool urgently needs funding in order to stay alive.
When the school launched the fundraiser, members of the school community were to quick to help out.
Ms. Eklund and Ms. Knight said they were gratified to see the response. They explained they are fighting tooth and nail to keep the school afloat.
“If we can’t get this funding,” Ms. Eklund said, “it will be tricky. We will continue to persevere, but it will be tricky.”
Ms. Gray and her colleague, Sonomi Obinata, have established a curriculum that incorporates an art studio, called the “atelier,” where children can express themselves by drawing and painting across mediums, storytelling and bookmaking, where they can do so with words, numeracy, song, gardening, and finally, the “tree initiative.”
The tree model incorporates hands-on outdoor learning with an intrinsic appreciation for the ecosystem and its natural habitats. The children go outdoors every day, and explore the world using their vast imaginations and their increasing knowledge about nature.
Many parents choose Ms. Gray’s program because of its environmentalist pedagogical approach. While these children will most likely be indoors for the entirety of their academic careers, Ms. Gray provides an opportunity to be out in the open and connect with the ecosystem through observation and investigation, the parents said.
“My favorite experience is when I showed up for pickup, and all of the kids had headlamps on,” Ms. Knight said. “They were inside their treehouse looking at spider eggs. That doesn’t happen in a normal program. One kid happened to find it, and Miss Hannah took it as an opportunity to teach everybody. They’re trained to love every part of nature.”
“They’re arms deep in the dirt, and planting trees,” Ms. Eklund added. “They have a lot of hands-on material to help guide their learning. It’s a very peaceful environment. When kids have a miscommunication, they have a peace tent, and work to talk through their feelings. Miss Hannah takes the smallest action and turns it into a learning experience, and that’s at the epicenter of what we’re trying to do.”
The preschool has always been a board-run program, comprised by a community of devoted parents who want to be involved in their children’s emotional and educational development. Every member strives to do their part in sustaining Ms. Gray’s classroom.
“We have a tree that we put outside the classroom in order to ask for water, toilet paper, snacks, and more,” Ms. Eklund said. “Within days, this giving tree is filled. But as we move forward, we need funding. There is only so much we can provide. Our town is spread thin in terms of worthy causes that will keep our island strong and beautiful — but this program needs more support as we move forward.”
Ms. Eklund and Ms. Knight articulated the generational hold the progressive learning space has on the Shelter Island community. The program has been in place for over 40 years, and both parents and former students are committed to helping out.
The curriculum emphasizes the importance of experiential learning, celebrates individuality while fostering a community, and connecting the classroom with the outdoors. It follows the Reggio Emilia educational approach, marked by student-centered and self-guided learning in relationship-driven environments, officials said.
The school is divided into a 2- and 3-year-old program, the “fauna group,” held seven days a week from 8 to 11 a.m., and a “flora and fauna” group, held Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. The flora and fauna group is part of a forest school, defined by an opportunity for students to develop confidence and self-esteem by learning in a woodland or natural environment with trees.
Here, students ages 4 and older spend three days learning on the historic grounds of Sylvester Manor, and the remaining two days will be inside and outside of school grounds at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church.
Ms. Gray will be holding an open house from 3 to 5 p.m. on July 1, to answer questions about the forest program. It will be located at the Shelter Island Presbyterian church, 32 North Ferry Road, on the lower level. Ms. Eklund will also be present to discuss an upcoming Shelter Island School District program for 3-year-olds, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
“The truth is that the children see some part of heaven that no one else can see and I see it with them when I teach,” Ms. Gray said.