Education and enrichment at Children’s Corner
Photo: Jess Zobel, Kyle Mochol and their students at Children's Corner Preschool in Saranac Lake.
It’s an unseasonably cold June day, but the kids at Children’s Corner Preschool, located at the former Lake Colby Elementary School in Saranac Lake, don’t seem to mind as they play gleefully among the trees that border the property.
Jess Zobel – or “Miss Jess” as the kids lovingly call her – hoists one of the kids onto a tree swing, while others get in line to wait for their turn. The children range in age from 3 to 5 and include universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) and special education students.
“This type of play is so important,” Jess says as she pushes a giggling 4-year-old girl on the swing. “It’s not just the exercise and physical activity – it’s the socialization. We give them room to interact with each other, to work through problems, to create games … this kind of play gives them the tools they need for when they enter into kindergarten.”
This scene – children playing, learning, interacting – is exactly what an anonymous donor hoped to preserve and support when the Arc Children's Corner and Family Services Fund was established at Adirondack Foundation in 2007, according to Deb Roddy. “The fund was seeded by the generous donation of the original gift, but has not been growing as much as was originally envisioned,” she says. “The Adirondack Arc Children’s Corner Program has existed for over 40 years, growing in size and numbers of families served, but we have never had to concentrate much on fundraising until recently.”
Roddy serves as education program director for Children’s Corner, a program of Adirondack Arc. In addition to Saranac Lake, Children’s Corner also has classrooms in Tupper Lake, Malone, and Fort Covington. In addition, there is an Early Intervention Program which serves children throughout Franklin County and the surrounding areas, infants through three-year-olds. The services offered include special education, speech, occupational and physical therapy, as well as evaluations to see what needs a child might have. “We do sessions at homes, daycares – wherever the child is located and whatever works out best for the family,” Roddy says.
“The fund was originally established because the donor was afraid to lose the services that the Children’s Corner program offers to area families,” Roddy adds. “We now need to learn how to take that money and make it grow”.
The Children’s Corner is still going strong. In fact, the program is growing, especially now with BOCES no longer able to afford to provide services. But it also is facing its share of financial challenges. “The Early Intervention program is funded through the New York State Department of Health with a set session rate that was actually decreased by 10% in 2010, with no planned increase ever being discussed by the state as far as we have heard,” Roddy said. “And even before that decrease, we had difficulty making ends meet.”
As for the preschool program, it is funded in large part by the New York State Education Department, and their funding model isn’t always easy to work with either. “For the preschools, having a higher enrollment helps with revenues,” Roddy explains. “But the enrollment and thus the funding comes with peaks and valleys. The way the system works, if our programs are running in the black, we can’t save that money. It has to be spent. We need a cushion to support the programs when enrollment is down and so tuition billing is reduced, and the state makes us whole later on. The funding should be based on our costs, not our enrollment. In the past, when Children’s Corner has run in the red, the rest of the agencies’ programs supported us until we were again solvent. However, the agency can no longer afford to do that and thus the importance of this fund, to give us a financial cushion when enrollment is down and our costs exceed our revenue.”
A typical day in the Saranac Lake Children’s Corner classrooms begins indoors. For Zobel’s 16 UPK students and Kyle Mochol’s 12 students classified by their school districts as “preschoolers with a disability,” that means an hour or so of free play, both classes mixed together, followed by a 20-minute “academic circle,” snack time, table time (which includes the day’s lesson and inside play), and concluding with about a half hour of integrated outdoor play. Mochol’s students stay at the school for additional time which includes lunch, another “academic circle,” and activities which include working on fine motor skills such as an art project and puzzles.
On this particular day in the UPK classroom, the students are learning the alphabet. Gathered around a rectangular table, the kids draw pictures of instruments that feature the letter “X” – saxophones and xylophones are the popular choice. After a few more minutes of drawing, Miss Jess signals that it’s time to head outdoors, and the children line up eagerly at the door.
“We try to utilize the outdoor space as much as possible,” Zobel says. Then, she opens the doors and the kids spill onto the playground.
As Zobel plays with the kids in the wooded areas, Mochol engages a smaller group in a game of tag – except all of the kids are “it” and Mochol is the only one on the run. The game ends with Mochol collapsing in a heap and the kids piling on top of him. After dusting himself off, Mochol comments on the importance of integrating developmentally delayed students with their typically developing peers.
“This environment helps them learn important social skills,” Mochol says. “Some of these children who qualify for special education services, this gives them an important head start. For others, we’re actually able to declassify them before they enter into kindergarten. For the UPK students, this program exposes them to differences, and that’s important at an early age.”
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