Prekindergarten: Where a lifetime of learning begins

Children work at their own pace in Farragut’s multi-age classroom

They start the day at little tables, using little hands to do big things.

Ashton Davis, age 4, grabs a card with a lowercase letter “b” and walks around the table until he finds its uppercase match.

Eleanor Glassmeyer, age 3, picks up different blocks — flat and narrow, flat and curved, small and chunky — and carefully rearranges them on a blue mat until they take on the shape of a stick person. 

Kaylee VanCuyk, age 4, holds a ball of yellow playdough in one hand and presses a googly eye into it with the other as she transforms the blob.

Matching letters builds early reading skills. Forming the stick person (“Mat Man”) with straight and curved shapes prepares them visually and tactilely for handwriting. Making creatures out of playdough builds fine motor skills.

This is prekindergarten at Admiral Farragut Academy, where children ages 3, 4, and 5 learn and play together. Such activities, said teacher Shauna McKee, are foundational blocks for kindergarten and beyond. 

“These skills are like blocks on the bottom of the learning pyramid,” she said, gesturing toward the table activities. “Without these blocks, when we send them to kindergarten, the next (level of learning) blocks won’t have a strong foundation to build upon.”

For its first 66 years, Farragut served students in fifth through 12th grades — and for most of that time, it was boys only. In 1989, girls joined the student body. A decade later, children down to kindergarten were added to the lower school and in 2002 prekindergarten was launched.

Today, 20 years after that lower school expansion, Farragut’s younger half still catches people by surprise.

“I hear that all the time,” McKee said. “Some people still think Farragut is only a high school. I have to remind them that the lower school has actually been here a while.”

McKee team-teaches prekindergarten with Allison Gormley. They are an impressive duo.

McKee is a board-certified speech-language pathologist and developmental specialist who also has taught elementary music (and still adds song to her lessons) as well as American Sign Language (ASL). Meanwhile, Gormley also is a developmental specialist and the former Director of New Mexico’s Project Jericho Inclusion Program, for which she traveled throughout that state training preschools on developmentally appropriate practices.

After working with children ages birth to 5 as a developmental specialist, I see each child for what they can accomplish with our support,” Gormley said. 

Today, Farragut is among the area’s finest prekindergarten programs. The community agrees. In 2019, Farragut won the People’s Choice Best of the Bay for best private school for preschool and grade school.

The multi-age classroom has many advantages:

  • It provides a sense of family and community.
  • Children are encouraged to learn at their own developmental level regardless of chronological age.
  • Older students develop a sense of leadership and mentor their younger peers.
  • Younger students develop independence and confidence by watching and engaging in activities with their older peers. 

“All of this instruction is designed to allow each child to develop at their own pace and celebrate each measure of progress and success,” McKee said.

As the children go through their schedule, the hours are filled with both learning and plenty of play, often intertwined. For instance, one day during morning carpet time, the children were doing their best to copy the movements shown on an A-B-C video when McKee hit the pause button. 

“Let’s practice this,” she said, slowly demonstrating the movements. “Touch your shoulders,” she said, and then waited for the children to catch up. “Hands on your waist,” she said, again modeling the action. “Touch your knees” was the final instruction.

When satisfied that the group had the hang of it, she resumed the video.

“Strengthening fine and gross motor skills is as important to early childhood development as cognitive learning,” McKee said.

Beyond the traditional Pre-K curriculum that encompasses literacy, math, science, and social studies, the children also learn ASL (McKee is fluent) and Spanish. Although the children have a structured Spanish class three times a week with “Señora O,” the teachers sometimes ask 4-year-old Marcos Diaz, who is bilingual, for help.

“¿Cómo se dice?” McKee may ask Marcos, using the Spanish words for “How do you say?” She finishes the question with an English phrase and Marcos answers in Spanish. Then the teachers sprinkle in that new phrase during the rest of the day.

Each day also includes music and movement as well as a rotation of enrichment programs such as art, physical education, music, and library.

When it’s time to go outside, the prekindergarteners have a dedicated, shaded space. Their private area includes padded tiles, a sandbox, playhouse, large hopscotch, picnic tables, and other toys.

Whether inside or outside, working independently or playing with friends, the children are not only learning from their teachers but also from each other. 

“Our classroom environment allows our students to develop a spirit of cooperation versus competition,” Gormley said.

Throughout the day, McKee and Gormley, offer guidance and encouragement. When a child figures something out, one of them may say: “Kiss your brain.”

Kiss your brain? Marcos explains with a demonstration. He loudly kisses the palm of his hand, firmly sets his palm on his head, and says with a smile: “It means I do something great.”

Enquire now to learn more about an Admiral Farragut Academy education.