In a naturally lit area of the early childhood education classroom at Peconic Community School in Aquebogue last Friday, students learned about trees by becoming trees themselves.
“Follow me, seeds,” their teacher, Alison Aldredge, whispered as she tapped on a drum. “Come on seeds. Follow me around.”
Her students then tip-toed toward the class’s potted hibiscus tree.
“The seeds are beginning to find their spot in the ground,” Ms. Aldredge said as she motioned to the children to sit and crouch like little seeds. “Come, find a spot. Plant yourself low. It’s time to begin. Starting to grow. Get your roots so deep down.”
Ms. Aldredge then took out a rain stick instrument to dramatize another element of what makes plants rise from the ground.
“Send your roots really low,” she said with a smile as she shifted the rain stick back and forth. “Start to grow, grow and grow!”
The founders of the Peconic Community School are experiencing some growth of their own. The independent private school, in its second year, this fall enrolled 27 students, up from nine last year. The school, which started in a small space at the East End Arts property in downtown Riverhead, is now operating at the former elementary school at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue.
The school was founded by three Southold parents who wanted their children and others to have the chance to learn in an environment that encourages cooperation and an understanding of the interconnectedness of art, science, nature and community. Tuition costs about $10,000 but the school offers a sliding-scale rate based on family income, she said. Fundraisers are held throughout the year to supplement tuition income.
The school’s co-executive directors, Liz Casey Searl and Kathryn Casey Quigley, sisters who founded the alternative school with fellow parent Patricia Eckardt, said they’re focused on creating themed curriculum that spans the school’s grades, from preschool to fifth.
And they get help from community partners such as Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, Group for the East End and Hallockville Museum Farm.
One example of how Peconic Community School teachers are collaborating this year comes in the form of lesson plans on trees.
As Ms. Aldredge’s students gave their best tree impersonations, she asked what kind of trees they were.
“I’m a big tree, what about you?” she asked as she stretched out her own arms. “Who feels like a silly walnut tree, dropping nuts all over the ground?”
A few students shouted “I do! I do!” as they transformed into walnuts and demonstrated how nuts plop to the ground.
Ms. Searl said the school’s new space is conducive to the holistic approach to learning, because each classroom has large windows, and natural vegetation surrounds the school.
As for the lesson plans, Ms. Aldredge’s students, ranging in age from 3 to 5 years, are focusing on how seeds become trees. Sharon Cook’s lower primary class of first- and second-graders is learning about different types of trees. Over in Colleen Hanley’s upper primary class, a combined class of grades three through five, students are learning how they can become environmental stewards by studying trees.
“It’s exciting because, developmentally, they’re each doing something on the appropriate level,” Ms. Searl said about the coordinated efforts. “As we do tree units in years to come, [the early childhood] group will move up and do the next part, and so on.”
Other collaborative lesson plans are in the works to enrich the basic curriculum.
The school is also enhancing its music program this year with the Dalcroze theory, which teaches students about music through body movements, and flute or and violin lessons are being offered as well. And all students are taking Spanish language classes.
Parents are encouraged to participate in the teaching process at the school.
Jamesport parent and jewelry maker Carolyn Mosciatti visited her 7-year-old son Matteo’s class Friday morning to lead students in a stamping project to make name necklaces.
Ms. Mosciatti said she had decided to enroll her son at Peconic Community School because she believes a smaller class size supports her son’s special education needs. She also likes how the school encourages parents and community members to participate with students in the classroom.
“When we toured the school, Matteo asked if he could start tomorrow,” Ms. Mosciatti said, threading a student’s necklace. “He feels at home here.”
Like Matteo, five of the eight students in Ms. Hanley’s class went to local public schools last year. Most of those students said they are enjoying school this year because they don’t feel the pressure of rushing through their class assignments and feel more comfortable to freely express opinions to their teachers.
“You had to learn a certain way,” 8-year-old Kate said about her old school. “Here it’s better because it’s more fun to learn here.”
Although Ms. Searl said she’s pleased with the school’s progress, she’s not looking to drastically expand the school anytime soon.
“We’re still young; we’re only two,” she said. “We need to catch our breath … We always had in mind to grow slowly.
“We just want to make sure we don’t bite off more than we can chew.”