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A Deeper Dive with Ms. Prendergast

A Deeper Dive with Ms. Prendergast

Head of Lower School Lea Prendergast brought new energy and a wealth of experience to RCDS that has already impacted teaching and learning from Nursery to Grade 4. In this Deeper Dive, Ms. Prendergast talks about enriching the Early Childhood Center (ECC) curriculum, in-depth studies that span an entire academic year for all Lower School grades, and how taking on new educational initiatives is often like a roller coaster ride.

What drew you to RCDS?

I was Lower School Director at Staten Island Academy and honestly, I was very happy. But I knew it was time to potentially take my skill set and see if I could apply it somewhere else. When I visited RCDS, I realized the school had one of the qualities that I love in a school: the adults were truly committed.

It sounds awful to say, but a lot of times schools say children come first, but the value isn’t always lived in the everyday. When I came on the RCDS campus it was very clear that RCDS did live the value of putting students first and I felt an immediate connection. I thought my skill set would work well in this environment, and so here I am.

You put that skill set right to work so to speak. The ECC expanded its early childhood curriculum significantly in September to encompass Specials. Can you share your thinking on the expansion and its benefits to RCDS’s youngest learners?

We talk about differentiation a lot in education. When you allow Nursery and PreK students to participate in a meaningful way in Specials like art, science, Spanish, and iLib, you get to tap into that budding scientist and other interests they have early on.  

We also talk a lot about building independence in the younger grades. I thought there was an opportunity to build more transitions into the schedule to foster that independence and expose our youngest learners to the rich array of RCDS Specials. ECC students for example, were already scheduled for Library, but not iLib which has the technology piece. Children do science investigation in the classroom but what if they could go to the science lab and see our science specialist on a regular basis? This was something I wanted our youngest Gators to experience; when I spoke to our specialists, they were game. Now, all our Nursery and PreK students have access to all our Specials teachers. We’ve even added mindfulness, which is important to provide at a young age for children to learn to be present and centered with so much going around them.

How is the expanded curriculum in the ECC going?

Really well. Everyone is getting into their groove and the teachers are getting excited for what they will do with ECC students next year. It’s also inspired a lot of collaboration. To give you an example, the students were so enthralled by a centipede they studied in the science room that it sparked further conversation back in the classroom. If the science teacher and classroom teacher are having these conversations, it makes for a deeper level of learning. Same thing with art. A classroom teacher might do an art project for children to work on fine motor skills, and now that the art teacher is involved, it leads to discussions about colors and light, enriching the program throughout. This is what is so great about attending an independent school because you can create added elements, like the expanded curriculum, that’s very special and unique.

Is the ECC initiative a catalyst for other developments in the Lower School?

It’s certainly helping to alter the dynamic so that classroom teachers, assistant teachers, and specialists are a cohesive team. One initiative the faculty came up with that we’re working on for the entire Lower School, Nursery to Grade 4, is implementing in-depth, overarching themes in each grade. For Beginners (kindergarten) the theme is “The Four Pillars of RCDS,” for Grade 1 it’s “The Community of the School,” Grade 2 is “Monmouth County History, the Lenape and Landmarks of NJ,” and for Grade 3 it’s “Immigration, Migration, and Westward Expansion.” In Grade 4 the theme centers around “Independence, Leadership and the Forming of the U.S.,” which also gets them ready for the handoff to Upper School.

Much of the content, whether it’s reading, writing, or field trips will be done within the broader overarching theme, over the span of the entire academic year. A third grader may be reading books about immigration, write in their journal from the perspective of an immigrant, and participate in a related social studies lesson. This allows teachers to cover three different subjects in a 90-minute time block without feeling rushed, while providing continuity for the students.  And we’ll work with our Specials teachers to tie into the theme as well. When we start working in a cross-curricular way, children see the connectedness that they can apply to so many different areas of life. We’re building on every bit of the whole child.

Anything else Lower School families can look forward to?

What families will also start to see is the plays (every Lower School class produces a play each year) will take on deeper meaning because they will also be connected to the theme each grade is delving into. For example, grade 1 will do an in-depth study of The Rumson Country Day School and they might decide that their play will focus on the founders of our School. The entire initiative is going to involve a lot of learning and we're going to have a lot of fun doing it.  

A big shout out to the Lower School teachers, who from the beginning, wanted to take this on and for trusting me with it. When you set out to enrich or elevate curriculum, I often compare it to a roller coaster ride. In the beginning, you can’t really see anything and then you get to the top and you can see down the tracks. We reached that point a few weeks ago, where faculty said they can see the benefits and possibilities to come, and we’re all going down that track together. At the end of the day, that’s my job as Head of Lower School. To honor what the team said they wanted to do and to provide them with what they need to make it happen.

Lea Prendergast joined The Rumson Country Day School as Head of Lower School on July 1, 2023. Prior to RCDS, she was the Lower School Director at Staten Island Academy. Ms. Prendergast holds a dual bachelor’s degree in education and anthropology from Hunter College, and a master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University.




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