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St. Joseph’s College is an institution built on an investment in early education. Home to one of the first laboratory preschools on the east coast, the Brooklyn Campus’ Dillon Child Study Center has affirmed the importance of child development for 78 years, serving as a model program for college students and professionals entering the field of early childhood education since 1934.

“The Center allows children to realize their own worth — knowing that they have much to offer,” says Susan Straut Collard, Ph.D., director of the Dillon Center.

Now, with the development and expansion of the Long Island Campus’ universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) program flourishing in the Freeport and Patchogue-Medford school districts, SJC’s early education stock is once again on the rise.

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In UPK classrooms, children develop skills that form the foundation for reading, writing and mathematics. Free of charge, these programs provide a nurturing environment where children’s natural curiosity is used as a springboard to learn. Research-based studies show significant positive outcomes for children who attend preschool, especially children who are “at risk.”

The expected rate of return in later years for children who have access to a successful UPK program is extremely high. Studies of quality preschool programs found that investments in such programs deliver many positive consequences in the form of increased productivity and decreased social spending.

To Mary Fritz, Ed.D., director of St. Joseph’s College UPK program, there is no question about the importance of the rate of return. Dr. Fritz has invested her career on the value of early education, and the results have made her, as well as her SJC graduates, wealthy beyond imagination.

“I think the hardest class to teach is pre-kindergarten,” Dr. Fritz says. “At 4 years of age, most students have no educational background. Everything that is so basic, that you just take for granted, these students may not know. If you should say to them, ‘I want you to get on line,’ even if you are speaking their language, this could be foreign to them. What’s a line? Where is this line?”

Former principal of Dryden Street School in Westbury, Nassau County, Dr. Fritz spent her career leading thousands of pre-K and kindergarten students into adolescence. With her knowledge and experience, she quickly became a representative to the Rockefeller Commission on the Career Ladder for Early Childhood, one of the early advocates of universal pre-kindergarten.

After her retirement from Westbury Schools and a brief adjunct professorship with St. John’s University, Dr. Fritz joined the Department of Child Study at SJC’s Long Island Campus in 2004. Conscious of Dr. Fritz’s area of expertise, S. Miriam Corr, C.S.J., Ed.D., ’51 (former chairperson of the child study department) put Dr. Fritz in charge of building a UPK program through the College.

“At the time, there was no district that was partnering with a university,” Dr. Fritz says. “So we became the first, to my knowledge.” By 2006, Dr. Fritz developed a UPK partnership with the local Patchogue-Medford School District.

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In just five years, Patchogue-Medford’s partnership with SJC was producing young students with improved school readiness scores, which initially caused Peggy Miller, principal of Freeport’s Columbus Avenue School, to take notice.

In 2011, the administration at Freeport Public Schools visited the two Patchogue-Medford UPK sites being run by SJC — one at Canaan Avenue School in Medford and the other at River Avenue School in Patchogue. What the Freeport officials witnessed was a sound enterprise deserving of expansion.

“The assistant superintendent said to me, ‘I have dreamed about this kind of pre-K program in all my years as an administrator, and I have never seen it before,’” Dr. Fritz recalls.

The administrators praised the College’s high level of integration into the Patchogue-Medford School District. The St. Joseph’s UPK students were involved in district assemblies and events, while their own classrooms were complete with lessons on topics from English language arts, math and science to music, dance and art.

From that encouraging visit, the Freeport-SJC partnership was formed and, as the first year of the program comes to a close this June (housed at Ms. Miller’s Columbus Avenue School), both parties are already seeing many positive returns.

Through careful evaluation and attention, students are assessed to ensure each child is developing at the right pace for preschool. A thriving pre-K system will eliminate the skills gap existing between those children entering kindergarten without having taken a UPK program, and the more affluent students whose parents sent them to private programs. Traditionally, the former group may start out behind in school for a variety of reasons, including lack of social skills, not knowing English or inexperience in a group educational setting.

In Freeport and Patchogue-Medford, SJC UPK teachers are helping identify students who may appear to need Child Preschool Evaluation (CPSE) and helping ensure students are not falling into that fearful skills gap. Children recommended for CPSE have their files brought under review, and whatever services needed (speech, cognition, etc.) are then recommended.

“Our districts are extremely cooperative,” Dr. Fritz says. “When my teachers identify students who may appear to need CPSE, the districts have gotten right on it.”

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Flourishing collaborative efforts abound within the SJC-UPK connection. Perhaps the strongest bond can be found among St. Joseph’s College’s current child study students and graduates, two groups that are heavily involved in the Freeport and Patchogue-Medford UPK partnerships. Qualified and knowledgeable SJC-educated instructors lead both UPK programs.

“When you attend St. Joseph’s, you don’t go through the motions,” Dr. Fritz explains. “You have to really be part of what is being taught, so that you understand what is the substance and how you will put it into action, for when you have your own classroom.”

The true value of the SJC child study program extends well beyond the College classroom, agrees current Freeport UPK teacher and SJC graduate Catherine Monaco ’08, M.A. ’10. “After a bachelor’s degree in child study, a master’s in literacy as well as three years experience as a teacher’s assistant in the UPK program in Patchogue, I was more than ready and prepared for the upcoming year.”

Teacher assistants graduating from SJC receive the education to obtain four undergraduate certifications in regular and special education from birth through grade six. All qualified teachers graduating from SJC have the same certifications as well as a master’s degree in literacy and cognition.

The College’s child study students currently enrolled also reap the benefits, spending their junior year fieldwork in the Freeport and Patchogue-Medford UPK classrooms, receiving hands-on instruction from those same SJC grads and professionals.

“St. Joseph’s laid a strong foundation upon which our teaching abilities are able to soar,” Ms. Monaco continues. “My enthusiasm and eagerness has not waned from that first glimmer of a teaching post, and my hope is that we will be able to serve the children of Patchogue and Freeport for many years to come with a high-quality program.”

The SJC UPK influence isn’t exclusive to the two districts, either. This winter, representatives from another Nassau school district toured the Freeport building to see just how efficiently the new SJC pre-K program is operating. Again, interested backers are noticing SJC’s UPK investment is paying off. And that’s not just a sales pitch; it’s an industry fact.

“You can see the loving relationship, in the way they interact with each other and know each other so well.” Dr. Fritz says of the SJC teachers and UPK students.

“It is just heart warming. My heart swells when I see how happy the children and teachers are.”

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