Thinking Out of the Box
A Bridgeport preschool's innovative approach to early education
Within the charming home at 246 Lenox Avenue in Bridgeport, more than a dozen students of The Adam J. Lewis Preschool spend their days surrounded by dedicated adults who are passionate about nurturing young minds and spirits. “It’s all in how we communicate with the kids,” says Julie Mombello, chief administrator of the school. “Role modeling, keeping positive, keeping the emphasis on developing expression, character and social skills.”
The overarching approach is important, she says, because some of the children come in with little to no communication or social skills in place. “We’ve had a four-year-old have no idea what to do when handed a book. He didn’t know to turn the pages,” Mombello says, adding that a low teacher-to-student ratio is key to the school’s methodology. “When a child comes in with that kind of gap, individual attention is key in order to make a big impact.”
Patty Lewis, the school’s founder, had the idea for a preschool years ago. She and Mombello were overseeing a diversity campaign at Greens Farms Academy when they realized that the majority of children they screened were not ready for kindergarten. Admission for those kids would have meant starting out struggling—creating a negative impression of school right off the bat. “There is an invisible line between our communities, from affluence to abject poverty. It creates a crazy learning curve at these earlier ages,” says Lewis. “Julie and I talked about starting a preschool specifically to help out those kids who needed it.”
As her own children grew older, Lewis thought the time had come to realize her vision. “I thought ‘why don’t I do it now?’ I thought I’d stick a toe in,” she says, prompting laughter from Julie: “There’s no toe-sticking here. This is full body immersion!” She found the vacant and foreclosed property at Lenox Avenue, called Lewis, and the two bought, gutted, and expanded the house. Plans to open the preschool in September 2013 were delayed, but the doors finally opened in December.
“That first group of parents really stuck with us,” remarks Lewis. “They signed on when we had nothing but a shell, nothing to see at all.” She says that sort of dedication comes from parents who truly want the best for their kids—then they know what is available to them. “When it comes to stimulating the minds of children aged zero to six, the research is out there, but it’s being read by educated, affluent people for the most part,” she explains. “There is an entirely different population who has no idea.”
She adds that the problem can also be generational. “If the parents didn’t have preschool, they don’t even think of it—it’s not their fault,” she says. “But no one communicates its importance to them, and the cycle continues.”
To maintain the freedom to design their own curriculum, Lewis says, they do not take any city or state funding.
“Public schools today are drowning in statistics, inputting test scores,” Patty says. “We want to offer the innovative programming we’ve developed.”
The idea is to prepare their students for entry into public kindergarten. “From here, some will go on to charter and magnet schools, but those slots are available by lottery. For those who go into public school, they might be moving from a 4:1 teacher ratio to a 24:1 teacher ratio,” Julie says. “It’s a pivotal moment and our kids have to enter kindergarten ready to go. A bad transition or immediate difficulty will be a negative for them.”
That transition is something Lewis and Mombello hope will happen within their school in the future.
“We would like to expand to K-2, keeping them until they learn to read, which is such a critical point in education,” says Mombello. “They could get to third grade having that foundation while still loving school.”
For now, the school relies on donors, fundraisers, and foundations to keep going. Community partnerships are valuable as well, enabling programs like monthly educational workshops for kids and parents, family music nights, dads’ group meet-ups, and yoga instruction.
The school’s combined focus on community, education, and opportunity lead Lewis and Mombello to name the school after Patty’s husband, Adam J. Lewis, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
“Adam was a product of educational opportunity,” explains Lewis. “He grew up in the Bronx and then received a scholarship to the Dalton program,” she says of the private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “From that experience, he knew how a person’s trajectory ties in. He never forgot about the opportunity he was given.” Lewis says naming the school for their father also left a wonderful legacy for their four children. Today, they and her two stepchildren help out as counselors during the school’s six-week summer program.
“It’s a warm and safe environment,” says teacher Andy Lindberg, who commutes an hour each way to a job he loves. “When the kids come in, we always give them a happy greeting or share a joke, and they light up first thing in the morning—they’re lit up for the day.” As the school year gets underway, Lewis and Mombello are ready to welcome more smiling young faces through the door, as well as the adults who bring them there. “The kids are fabulous, and so are the parents. They are involved, excited, and cooperative,” Lewis says, emphasizing that it’s that sentiment that bonds all of us. “We all, they all, want the best for our kids.”