Bank Street Head Start
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Joyful, play-based learning
Bank Street Head Start aims to show young children a world of possibility through block building, woodworking, dramatic play, musical instruments, science experiments, trips around the neighborhood and more. There are three adults in every room, for a ratio of 7 children to 1 adult. Children are encouraged to speak up, an important skill, staffers say, especially for kids learning English and those with special needs or poverty-related stress or trauma.
Parents won't find a lot of math worksheets and reading drills here but they will see kids eager to learn. The program fosters curiosity, creative expression and open-ended exploration. A group of children might play-act going to a shoe store, play a domino counting game, observe a butterfly hatching, or sound out words to write a story with a teacher.
Head Start is designed is to lift people out of poverty through education, said Bank Street Head Start’s director, Sarah Willis. It serves children in families living at or below the poverty line, although ten percent (6-7 kids) of the seats are reserved for families above that cut-off who enjoy all the perks as other students.
The school has a full-time nurse, a mental health consultant and two family workers. If a parent is experiencing anxiety about Covid-19, for example, the school will help. Nutrition and physical activity is also part of its mission. Children eat couscous, fresh fruit, rice, beans and other healthy options—not pizza, chicken nuggets or highly processed food. (Families may do food pick-ups during the pandemic.) Children play outside daily in Tompkins Square Park. The school day is longer than most. The school year runs through July.
Bank Street Head Start serves ethnicities that reflect its Lower East Side location, where the center has been located since 2014. Families speak a range of languages including Russian, Polish, Mandarin and Spanish. “Our staff is incredibly multi-lingual, speaking up to six different languages,” Willis said.
The program seeks to build on and support parent/caregiver strengths and build strong relationships. “We believe parents are the experts of their children,” Willis said. A child missing home might pull a picture off the Family Picture Wall and take a nap with it. A parent room on-site is stocked with books and comfortable chairs.
The program is an outgrowth of well-respected Bank Street College of Education, on the Upper West Side, which runs a college for teachers, a school for children and a family center for young children with special needs.
One downside: The space is neat, bright and inviting but it has few windows. Options during the pandemic include all in-person learning, blended learning, and all virtual learning. The nurse does Covid-19 testing twice a week. “I could argue we’re one of the safest pre-K programs in the city,” Willis said.
In addition to pre-K, this site has a program for 3-year-olds. The program has referred select graduating children to Hunter, a screened school for children who score high on a test. Others funnel into District 1 schools: PS 64, Earth School, Neighborhood School, Children's Workshop and East Village Community School. Some choose Catholic, charter or other options.
Admissions: The program draws children from all boroughs. There are income requirements for most seats. (Lydie Raschka, interview, October 2020)