URI’s Laboratory Preschool Thrives in Downtown Providence

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Photo: URI Feinstein Pre-School

From the exterior of 255 Westminster Street, you see the facade of the former Shepard’s Department Store, once a bustling and thriving shopping experience. Look deep into the windows along the street now and you will see a world of play and exploration, of process over product, of brain development and executive function development, all happening before your eyes.

A colleague of mine recently asked the question and got me thinking, what does it mean to have a school in the city? It certainly takes a vision. First off, it needs a playground, which we do not have, so the question again is, what does it mean to have a school in the city?

It is a typical day at URI’s Dr. Pat Feinstein Child Development Center (CDC), 34 children between the ages of 3 and 5 years are divided up between two classrooms. There are three teachers in each room, two assistants and three University practicum students. Without a playground or designated outdoor space attached to our school, we travel around the city,

Students at Providence Public Library  Photo: URI Feinstein Preschool

finding special parks, murals to ponder, sculptures to take in and streets and road crossings to navigate. Once a week, each classroom visits the Providence Public Library where Bonnie Lilienthal, the children’s librarian, reads to our group before we take out books for the week. Teachers then take the children to one of our many parks, returning after an hour for lunch. While such city travel with preschoolers may sound dangerous, we maintain a 5-star rating by RI’s quality rating system, Brightstars.  NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, applauds our going outside every day–yes, every day, rain or shine–and walking through the city. Perhaps you have seen us, sometimes with a few of the Downtown Safety Ambassadors flanking the line of teachers and children, their yellow jackets leading the way. We have successfully managed to work this system for 27 years. What better, more authentic way is there for young children to understand diversity than to actually see it. The majority of our school families find this aspect of our curriculum to be a plus and one of the reasons they chose our school over others in Providence.

Umbrellas   Photo: URI Feinstein Preschool

I like to think of our outdoor experience as three tiered; 1) exploring the city and the art that is displayed on sides of buildings, rooftops, side gardens or on fencing, 2) building the community relationships we have grown to rely upon – the Downtown District’s Safety Ambassadors, Bonnie, the children’s librarian and the folks at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, to name a few, and 3) experiencing the diversity and heart of our city, be it college students, merchants, or the familiar faces of unhoused individuals – all are our neighbors.

Watching the River Flow  Photo: URI Feinstein Pre-School

When out and about, we are enjoying all that open spaces have to offer, thinking about directionality, ways to position ourselves and maneuver through often crowded city streets. We are learning about safely crossing streets, how to share the sidewalk with others, constantly navigating construction, scooters and motorized bikes. We are lucky to be able to see some very talented artists work on large murals on some of the city walls, gigantic faces with flowers and birds floating high above.

Meeting Our Neighbors   Photo: URI Feinstein Preschool

Architecture leads to some wonderful conversations; I am thinking of one around the Turks Head Building, in particular. Counting towers of windows and seeing our names in the signs along Westminster or Washington Streets. “I see a D for Delia!”  We also meet many different types of people, different sizes, colors, people wearing various types of clothing.

The Turks Head Building      Photo: URI Feinstein Preschool

We smell foods and scents from various cultures. We hear music from radios or sometimes live music from TAPA, Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts, all creating a cornucopia of what makes up this city.

We have become an integral part of this downtown community. The city has indeed become an extension of our indoor classrooms. Providence offers so many varied and rich learning experiences for us, culturally and linguistically. With diversity and art everywhere, it only makes sense for us to utilize all it has to offer. We often hear from others who see us out walking or playing, “I know you, you are the Feinstein kids.” The expression on adult faces as they see us is rewarding, going from one of concentration regarding their work day to one of relaxation and joy at seeing 34 preschool children laughing, running, talking and just being 3 and 4. The following is a statement from a former CDC family member: “I really appreciate how open the classroom is and how the school is a part of downtown. Having the teachers, teacher training, safety coordinators, and downtown partners MAKE everything feel very active and dynamic”.

We are teaching our children real life skills, transferable life skills. Isn’t that what is really important at this age and at any age, for that matter? Another quote from one of our family URI surveys states: “We love the CDC and are so thankful to be a part of this community! My heart always leaps a little when I hear [my daughter] explain to someone that her school is downtown, it’s truly so special”.

Providence Mural, Downtown   Photo: URI Feinstein Preschool

Early Childhood Learning centers are currently facing a most crucial time. This was true before the pandemic, but painfully, remains true today. Until the true value of educating young children receives the attention, support and funding it needs, the challenge to find qualified, dedicated teaching staff to fill a physically and emotionally demanding job will remain problematic. As the University of Rhode Island’s laboratory preschool in Providence, we were designed to hire URI student workers on work study. Now that URI does not, for the time being, have a footprint in downtown Providence, I am looking to Brown, Johnson and Wales, RISD and the populace at large to find and hire teacher assistants.

So, what does it mean to have a school in the city? It means you need to have highly trained qualified teachers, you need to have a plan, a vision, a relationship with your community members and you need to have family buy-in. It takes a village to make this happen and we have created, along with our many team members, a village within a city.

Delia C. Hall, M.A.Ed., is the Director of the URI Dr. Pat Feinstein Child Development Center, a NAEYC accredited laboratory preschool. She has expertise in early learning program leadership, early childhood education, child development, and teaching young children as well as adult learners. Delia also is an on-going trainer for the RIELDS Instructional Cycle series through the Rhode Island Department of Education and the East Bay Educational Collaborative.