Saratoga Independent School, a multi-age educational school for grades Pre-K to 6th, is located on 459 Lake Avenue in Saratoga Springs. The philosophy behind multi-age education is that children learn by doing at their own rate. A child learns through play, exploration, discoveries and authentic experiences. Different children are ready at different times for all types of learning, as we all know by watching our own kids in their early years. For instance, some walk early but aren’t ready to talk, while others are scooching around talking in full sentences. This is the belief that SIS carries into their school, not every first grader may be ready to read, but show extreme interest in mathematical concepts, for example. The children learn in a safe and nurturing environment. They are preparing for the world by learning and experiencing respect, caring, cooperation and collaboration. Multi-age learning fosters a community of respect.
SIS begins this type of learning in their preschool, with a combined three and four-year old class offered in the morning or afternoon for 2½ hours each, five days a week. The classes are taught by Liz McGinnis and her assistant, Kim Blystone, and there is a maximum of 11 children per class. Liz has been with SIS for 8 years and absolutely loves her job. At first she was slightly wary of the multi-age concept, figuring that the younger children would get lost in the class. However, she has found that children mimic what they see. The younger children are inspired by the older children and attempt things they may not have in a traditional three-year old class. In response, the four years olds mimic the teachers and are eager to help their younger counterparts. They also demonstrate the proper behavior, routines and set examples for the rest of the class, having been through it the year before.
Each day begins with a morning meeting with children from all grades. The preschool begins attending after winter break. The purpose of this meeting is to give the children a chance to share and explain their work. This instills self-confidence by having the student talk in front of the group and can help the child grow socially, emotionally and academically. At the end of the meeting an open-ended question is posed as the “challenge of the day” where the students are expected to think critically in order to answer the question.
The students in preschool have a monthly theme, which is an introduction to interdisciplinary and integrated learning and is adapted for each activity. For instance, this month’s theme is Fall, and it is apparent upon entering the classroom. At the first station, the art center, the children were working on pumpkin headbands, focusing on their fine motor skills. Math and manipulatives is another station, where students work with blocks, counting and measuring. Many of the items on the table are related to Fall, such as different numbers written on paper cut into apple shapes. Their dramatic play area is set up as a Farmers Market with children working the register and picking out different vegetables. The literacy station is surrounded by bookshelves and large alphabet squares on the mat. I was there when circle time began and Liz was reading, “Five Little Pumpkins.” There is also a science exploration station where children can play with leaves and small toy animals at a sensory table. Finally, outdoor play takes place in one of two playgrounds within the sixty acres of land.
In addition to the preschool classes, SIS also offers a wrap around program for working parents. Students in the morning pre-k can attend the afternoon wrap around and vice-versa. This class has less structure than the preschool class but also involves a monthly theme that the children show an interest in, this month is zoo animals. I had a chance to speak with Melinda Fant, who has been the lead teacher of the wrap around program for two years, but has been with SIS for eight years. She explains that this program is designed to allow children to express themselves through art, songs, movement and open-ended questions. There is a lot of communication between Melinda and Liz, so they are aware of each child’s strengths, likes and dislikes, moods and abilities. I asked Melinda to tell me about her experience at SIS and she had this to say, “I love it. The multi-age curriculum is wonderful to watch. You see older kids reaching out to help, and taking a leadership role. The kids encourage each other and celebrate each others accomplishments. You definitely feel a part of a community here.”
One of the thing I loved that makes SIS really unique is the progress reports. Instead of a checklist, teachers are constantly taking anecdotals of each child. Through observation, they record benchmarks, by quoting the conversation and taking a picture. I was able to view “Libby’s” portfolio – an entire book filled with these anecdotals. One day, Libby’s class was singing a song, when one of the boys dropped his collection of small toys on the ground. Libby stopped what she was doing and helped the boy pick up his toys. The teachers documented this as an important milestone of showing empathy for another. By recognizing this, Libby is made aware of her good deed, instilling self-confidence, and her parents are able to share this experience with her.
When it comes to discipline, SIS takes a unique approach. They believe in the “Apology of Action.” This means that saying sorry is just not enough. A child must learn what they did wrong and what they can do to make amends. At the preschool level, the class has a “peace mat.” Students sit on the mat and tell the teacher or another student what is bothering them. The students follow a script that becomes internalized early. For instance, if one student says something mean to another student, the teacher will bring them over to the peace mat. The teacher will explain that words can hurt and has the child think of something that they can say to make the other student feel better. By using actions as an apology, it forms a memory in the child’s mind and can make a difference in behavior.
Saratoga Independent School has many opportunities for the incoming preschooler to feel comfortable. They start with a home visit in the summer, to meet the child in their environment. There is also a family picnic, where children have a chance to meet each other and play with their parents close at hand. The first day of school, the children come in for one hour for milk and cookies, and see their picture that the teachers took at the home visit, on the wall in their classroom. Another way to make the transition even easier is SIS offers Summer Camp.
SIS’s motto is “We take care of ourselves, each other, our school and our community.” This is evident as soon as you enter the school. There is a great deal of caring and respect as well as traditional learning happening at Saratoga Independent School. For more information, visit their website at or call 583-0841.