Tucked away between downtown Downers Grove and the Maple Grove County Forest Preserve, a surprising respite from the bustle of the suburban landscape, sits The Avery Coonley School. Founded in 1906, it is an independent, coeducational day school for academically bright and gifted students ages three-years-old through eighth grade.
Patty Crylen serves as director of the Early Childhood Program, offering preschool for three-year-olds that provides a warm caring environment where children are respected and encouraged to become their best; socially, emotionally, physically and academically.
Crylen says the campus serves as a wonderful setting for early childhood learning, with grassy and wooded areas, a reflecting pond, and an opportunity for students to play outside every day. The two-story, former residence of the Head of School, houses the early childhood program, yet still conveys the warmth of a home. This setting instills feelings of comfort and safety, allowing children to make smooth transition to school.
Creativity is an essential piece of learning at The Avery Coonley School, with play being a large part of how students learn. “When you give the children the opportunity to create things on their own, they are much more creative,” Crylen says. She adds that achievement is not measured by the end product, but rather by a process that encourages growth.
Children feel safe to explore, create, make mistakes, figure things out, fall down and see that they can get up and try again.
“We do a lot of things for which there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer. Encouraging inquiry in children allows for exploration,” Crylen says. “Exploration through play is very important for these children because that is how they learn.”
The creativity of this program is one of the things that led Nicole Gilhooley to Avery Coonley. She has had three children complete the early childhood program, and works as the Assistant Director of Admission and Marketing.
“(My oldest son) was a little shy and very bright even at two-and a half years old. He was already excited about learning his letters and numbers, loved books and had an incredible memory,” she says. “We wanted a program that could support his development socially and emotionally in an more academic environment than a traditional preschool.”
Gilhooley adds that she loves how the teachers model behavior for the children in order to encourage positive peer modeling within the classroom.
“Each time I left my children for their day in EC, I knew there was no place better for them to be. They were loved, challenged, cared for and encouraged in so many ways.”
Crylen says the key is that the Early Childhood team loves what they do and cares about each of the students. With a seven-to-one student to teacher ratio, teachers also have the time to give students feedback and really listen to them.
“Children are just naturally curious.” Crylen says. She adds that in this age of quick access to information, students need to know how to gather information, evaluate that information, and then process that information so that they can actually use it. Students need to know how to think, solve problems, look at things from different perspectives, be creative and not let fear of failure keep them from achieving their dreams.
“One quality of the children in EC is their joy of learning. They soak up so much knowledge in a short period of time and have so much fun doing it.” Gilhooley says, adding her children were always eager to share projects they had done and discuss what they learned at school.
“Although our very youngest students learn a lot while in our program, our goal is not to fill their heads with facts while quickly covering a subject, but rather to open up their minds and expand their horizons while uncovering many facets of a subject,” says Crylen.
“The connection a child makes with a teacher influences his love of learning and his self-confidence,” Crylen says. “Having a team of certified teachers separates our Early Childhood Program from other schools.”
Crylen acknowledged how difficult it can be for a parent to find what is often the first school experience for their child, and advised that parents make sure to visit the classroom of a potential school before registering.
The application process includes an online application and a small group screening, where up to nine children play together for about an hour while being observed. It is a combination of free playtime and some assessments, like determining if the child is able to focus for a short period of time and how well he or she is able to follow directions.
“From an admission perspective, we encourage families to visit and see what the Early Childhood Program is all about. Tours include an observation of a class in session, a small group discussion with the director of the program and an overview of the admission process,” Gilhooley says.
The Early Childhood Program offers a morning or afternoon class, in a three- or five-day program.
Classes are limited to 21 students, so the ratio always will be seven-to-one. Tours at Avery Coonley are offered on Wednesday mornings. Early screenings are held in December, with at least two more screenings in the spring. Acceptance letters go out in March for the following fall.
„For more information, visit www.averycoonley.org.