For seven years, The Friendship Academy, operated by the Easter Seals of Southeastern Pennsylvania in Kulpsville, Towamencin Township, has been teaching preschool-aged children the essentials of early childhood: Personal and social development, communication, creative development, play, teamwork, literacy and social skills.
However, the preschool prides itself in an area of development that it feels is paramount in the development of young minds – compassion and empathy.
While others may see Hannah as a young girl with severe mobility issues, who relies on the use of a specialized wheelchair, her classroom peers without developmental disabilities, like Greg and Chance, see Hannah as a human being, a friend with whom they can laugh, learn, help and share on a daily basis.
As of late, The Friendship Academy has been working to erase an assumption from the community that their school is solely for educating those with disabilities.
“This year, enrollment is really down, and ironically, it is the first year that we have people that want extended preschool hours,” said Betsi Strasser, division director for Easter Seals of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “The problem is we are hidden (off Forty Foot Road) and the people who see Easter Seals think we are only for children with disabilities.”
At present, The Friendship Academy offers preschool in two rooms with three options: A full day session from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and two half-day sessions split up from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Last September, the school was approved for a daycare license by the Department of Public Welfare to operate as and offer hours as a day care. At present, The Friendship Academy offers day care from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“(Children) can come before preschool, stay here for preschool, and stay after preschool,” Strasser said. The Friendship Academy is your typical preschool, she said, with just a little bit more. Bolstering its mission is accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which Strasser called the gold standard for preschools, as well as its licenses from the Department of Education and the Department of Public Welfare for daycare.
“We just also know how to differentiate education for children with different learning styles,” she said.
Bill Jernegan, principal and program coordinator, said The Friendship Academy gives children with specific developmental disabilities or learning disabilities the opportunity to participate and interact with children without certain disabilities.
“In our program, we attempt to have a 50/50 blend of children in our classroom settings, and we try to cap enrollment at 18,” he said. “Many of our children learn in different ways. It's a reciprocal process.”
Jernegan said children with developmental delays also assist the typical child in learning strategies like integration and grouping.
“The curriculum is the same for all children,” he said.
The Friendship Academy conducts eligibility tests and screening processes for enrollment, which determines a child's level of cognitive demand, social and emotional demand and language demand. The screening ensures those with disabilities are on the same learning level as those without developmental delays.
At the heart of The Friendship Academy's curriculum and standards are its Pennsylvania Department of Education-certified teachers, which, Strasser said, is rare for a preschool. Teacher assistants also attain required credentials under the Child Development Associate program.
Jernegan said teachers and staff meet as a group to design and develop instructional strategies for all the children, to best suit their learning needs. At no time, he said, is a teacher distracted or dedicating more time to a specific student, taking away time from learning in the classrooms.
“They are highly-qualified people with years of experience,” Strasser said. “They are knowledgeable to the learning needs, regardless of a child's specific learning style.”
The tremendous amount of resources in the classrooms and the school lead to a high level of quality interaction with students, Jernegan said.
For instance, the preschool's music therapist is experienced at selecting the right type of music for a child's skill and interest level.
“The therapist takes curriculum and abilities and creates music that all kids can participate,” Jernegan said. “For instance, if there is a child who suffers from hearing loss, he may put the kid on something that vibrates so the child can experience another way than hearing the music. There is now a feeling of music.”
Occupational therapists and physical therapists are also on hand to design specific curricula and development programs for certain students.
“We see the child for what the child can be,” Jernegan said.
Something unique to the curriculum of The Friendship Academy is the push for eco-science, a subject that falls under the requirements of NAEYC. The Penn State Cooperative Extension in Montgomery County has spent time with the preschool in establishing gardens and a greenhouse at the school.
“We have a very advanced eco-science curriculum, which is hard to achieve,” Strasser said. This year, students grew vegetables and flowers from seeds, all the while learning about the environment and its ecology and biology.
“It's important that there is not only an understanding of how things grow and the interaction of elements, but also an understanding of nutrition,” Strasser said.
For instance, students grew cucumbers in the garden. After harvest, the fruits were cut up and every single child chowed down on cucumbers.
“Three year olds love worms,” Strasser said. “It gives them an idea of what's in the ground.”
The school also works alongside the Perkiomen Watershed, for example, to engage in science activities.
“We bring people here with knowledge that our own staff may not have,” Strasser said.
Jernegan said having a green curriculum focusing on nutrition and caring of the environment is just common sense.
Furthermore, the preschool offers scholarships through the state Education Improvement Tax Credit program. Strasser said businesses can contribute money to a list of approved preschools' scholarship programs, thus receiving tax credits.
In today's world, the staff at The Friendship Academy know the importance of an all-inclusive, non-discriminatory, atypical learning environment, and want nothing more than parents of preschool-age children to cherish that ethos.
“We want to let people know we are here and the quality of our academy,” Strasser said. “People who embrace us understand that intermingling at an early age is where compassion comes from.”
The Friendship Academy is located at 1161 Forty Foot Road, Kulpsville, and can be reached at (215) 368-7000. It has three other locations in Broomall, Levittown and Media. Find it online at http://www.thefriendshipacademy.org/