Emily Sharrock, MPA
Associate Vice President, Education Center Bank Street College of Education
Active, lifelong learning is a foundational premise of Bank Street’s early childhood classrooms, including the Bank Street School for Children, the Bank Street Family Center, and Bank Street Head Start. These programs immerse even the youngest children in experiences that support their understanding of who they are as individuals and as members of a community. Teachers support this process by allowing for independent play, interactions with peers in the classroom and school, explorations of nearby neighborhoods, and developing the practice of age-appropriate advocacy around social justice issues. As a result, Bank Street students emerge as confident, capable students who feel a sense of ownership over their own learning process and are invested in making a difference in our global society.
Bank Street, founded in 1916 by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, is centered on the belief that children learn best when they are engaged with their surroundings and are able to make meaning of the world around them. Informed by the work of educational theorist John Dewey, Bank Street’s approach is guided by the premise that children learn best when they are encouraged to explore and their learning is guided by their natural curiosity.
Like other Ideal Learning Approaches, children can choose from a wide array of materials that help activate their imaginations. Recognizing that nursery schoolers are often just beginning to transition from spending a large portion of their time with family or at home, Bank Street’s programs handle separation gradually through a carefully planned transition process. This can include introducing the children to the school community through small groups in the classroom before broadening their experience to include music and movement classes, the library, and assembly. Over time, they venture outside Bank Street to learn more about neighborhoods and the larger city—visiting gardens, markets, and other landmarks—gaining not only an understanding of their place in the world but also a sense of independence and agency.
Bank Street’s children’s programs include the Bank Street School for Children, an independent school for students from nursery through eighth grade on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; the Bank Street Family Center, an inclusive center that serves children ages six months through five years, which is housed in the same building; and Bank Street Head Start, a free program for children ages three to five years old located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Bank Street also offers a summer camp for children in pre-K through age sixteen.
Supported by grants from the federal Administration for Children and Families and the New York City Department of Education’s Pre-K for All initiative, Bank Street Head Start is located in a low-income housing community. Like the School for Children and the Family Center, the educational program is derived from a developmental-interaction approach: preschoolers interact with their environment while also exploring their unique abilities and interests. This involves using the community as an extension of the classroom, a fertile ground for diverse social interactions, and an opportunity to experience how different people coexist. Crucial to a school where 90% of the students come from families meeting federal poverty guidelines, the Head Start program goes beyond education to address all aspects of a child’s learning experience. This includes physical and emotional health—learning is difficult when a child is sick, hungry, or struggling with his or her emotions. The school offers vision, dental, and hearing evaluations and can refer children to mental health services. Preschoolers with special needs are also served, and children of all abilities learn together.
Family partnership is key in all Bank Street programs. Integral to Ideal Learning is the idea that parents and teachers work together to support the child’s overall development. Recently, teachers in the Bank Street Family Center began recording and sending parents “I Notice” statements several times a week—anecdotes about the children’s days and development. The Family Center also began using an app that allows teachers to easily correspond with parents during the school day. Ongoing observation, parent-teacher conferences, and frequent conversations with caregivers keep everyone on the same page about children’s overall development and academic learning. These interactions also help to build community in the form of the teacher–caregiver-child relationships that are the cornerstone of Ideal Learning programs. In fact, 8 of 17 teachers in the Head Start program are former Head Start parents who displayed an interest in working with children. These teachers were recruited by Bank Street and supported as they pursued further credentials, including certifications, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees.
Bank Street’s early childhood programs are based on the principle that learning starts at birth and spans a lifetime. Every individual learns how to be an active, intellectually curious member of their community through deliberate interaction with people, materials, ideas, and the environment. Working with families, Bank Street programs empower children to realize their potential and look for ways they can make a contribution to the world.