Last Friday afternoon, just before 3 p.m., the sounds of happy children filled the first floor of East End Arts’ headquarters on East Main Street in Riverhead.
It was the end of the first week of classes at the new Peconic Community School, an independent elementary school founded by three parents from Southold Town who wanted to give their kids, and other kids in the community, a chance to learn in an environment that encourages cooperation and an understanding of the interconnectedness of art, science, nature and community.
Their first school year began Sept. 10, with eight students from all over the North Fork, ranging in age from 6 to 9.
The school was founded by sisters Liz Casey-Searl and Kathryn Casey Quigley and their friend and fellow parent Patricia Eckardt, who is working on a doctorate in education.
Ms. Eckardt helped find the school’s first teacher, Natalie Sisco, with whom she had worked at the Ross School in the Hamptons.
“I’m really into the idea and mission of this school, with free learning and working with the environment,” Ms. Sisco said as she and the students cleaned up the classroom at the end of Friday’s classes.
The multi-age classroom offers both challenges and rewards that are rarely seen in a traditional educational setting, she said.
“I love to see peers working together. They’ve become a really supportive team,” she said. “When working together, the important thing is to make sure everyone is challenged at the same time.”
Ms. Sisco said the students spent the first week decorating the classroom with art projects and a map of the world, which they filled with pushpins and pictures of places the kids had visited. They also visited the Peconic River and spent several afternoons graphing the types of vegetables growing in the nearby River & Roots Community Garden.
“The week went fast,” said Ms. Casey-Searl, whose sons Owen and Conner are attending the school. “I think the kids are exhausted.”
She said she’d initially expected the students to range in age from kindergarten to third grade, but the final student mix ended up being slightly older, with most kids in grades 1 through 4.
“I think it’s really a confidence booster for the older children to mentor the younger ones,” Ms. Casey-Searl said. “The younger ones feel they have allies who are older kids. I think it benefits them both, probably in ways we don’t know yet.”
The school’s administrators began working to make the space ready for the school year about three weeks ago and were lucky enough to find a Montessori School in Smithtown that was having a yard sale at which they sold many school supplies.
“It’s so exciting. The children are wonderful and the families are wonderful,” said Ms. Eckardt.
“I heard about it from another parent at the skate park,” said Ameila Hegeman of Riverhead, whose three children, Emma, Ronan and Riley, attend the new school.
“They were great. They believed in everything I believed in,” she said. “My kids love it.”
Parent Sharon Harbin, also of Southold, whose 6-year-old daughter Lilianna attends the school, also found out about it from another parent at tumbling class.
She said she’s happy with her daughter’s first week at school.
“We thought we’d try something different,” Ms. Harbin said.