The Times-Picayune, October 4, 2010
In an effort to modernize the way it teaches its very youngest students, Ursuline Academy has recently revamped its early childhood program, investing $3 million in a new classroom building and adopting a student-inspired curriculum, a significant change for a Catholic school steeped in almost three centuries of tradition.
The new center, named after former elementary school principal Sister Teresita Rivet, is housed in what was once a laundry used by Ursuline nuns who lived on the State Street campus.
The 4,500-square-foot building has largely retained its historic facade, but inside, it has been renovated into a large studio space with a trendy warehouse feel, equipped with learning centers, smart boards and lots of colorful toys that help children learn motor skills.
School staff began working to restore the flood-damaged building about three years ago. Before then, the two-story building, built in 1911 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, had mainly been used for storage.
With the facility now nearly complete, 66 students — ages 2 to 5 — cycle between learning centers for art, music, reading and math, and more traditional classroom setups for religion and library time. Nine teachers work in the center. Tuition and fees are about $8,000 a year.
In every part of the center, technology plays an important role. Touch-sensitive tables — which work like huge iPads — teach the girls the alphabet and let them “paint.” Smart boards replace black boards.
The facility was designed by Concordia Architects, a local firm that has designed school facilities across the country and provided the master plan for the Louisiana Children’s Museum.
In addition to providing a first-rate facility, teachers fanned out across the country looking for the right educational model to adopt.
They decided on the Reggio Emilia approach, an Italian style of teaching developed in the 1940s that focuses on a student-inspired curriculum rather than a teacher-driven agenda.
“Previously, teachers taught as if children were little vessels to be filled up with knowledge,” said Kim Harper, Ursuline’s elementary school principal. “Now, teachers view children as capable of constructing their own learning, and lessons are developed from the children’s need to know and their own natural curiosity.”
The Reggio approach has a handful of basic hallmarks that set it apart from more traditional learning methods. Children should have a say in what and how they learn; they should interact with the subject matter being taught; relationships with other children are promoted; and each child should be free to express his or her individuality.
For example, some of the students recently wanted to play store — so the teachers helped them set up a market and began teaching about commerce. They plan to take the students to the Uptown Crescent City Farmer’s Market, and to eventually help them sell items they’ve grown in the school’s garden.
Becky McLellan enrolled her 4-year-old, Cecilia, at Ursuline because of the new Reggio-inspired program. She said it has already had a positive effect on her daughter.
“Every day she learns in some different, wonderful way,” she said. “This has boosted her confidence.”
Judith Kieff, acting chairwoman of department of curriculum and instruction at the University of New Orleans, said a Reggio program, like the one Ursuline is using, can produce a more inspired student. The girls’ market is a good example.
“They’re not looking to the teacher to tell them what they should know,” Kieff said. “The world becomes their teacher.”
Kieff plans to send UNO education students to Ursuline to use the center as a laboratory for their own training.
For Ursuline’s early childhood coordinator Belinda Baker, the building and program represent a philosophy she’s held during nearly 30 years in education.
“I’ve always believed children should be free to express themselves,” she said.