‘Something fresh’: New kind of school helps the smallest kids of Asbury Park’s West Side

July 5, 2023 9:27 am

Published in Asbury Park Press June 30, 2023

by Charles Daye

ASBURY PARK – Ashley Fabien says the new Early Childhood Learning Center being built here “means everything” to the West Side of this city. And perhaps that’s because it strips the city down to a more human size.

“We are bringing the village back to Asbury Park,” said Fabien, an Asbury Park native and director of education for the center, built by Interfaith Neighbors. “It takes a village to raise a child. A lot of people don’t have those villages anymore, but with Interfaith Neighbors we are a community of connected organizations that have so many resources for our families and it is so nice that we can start off at the youngest level and watch them grow,” Fabien said.

Interfaith Neighbors is a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 when local faith communities came together to address the growing problem of homelessness. Its mission is to assist the most vulnerable with meeting life’s necessities.

The 4,200-square-foot learning center is located at 302 Atkins Ave. in Asbury Park and is licensed to accommodate up to 34 children.

Fabien called the center “a passion project for me.”

“I know firsthand, being a teacher in Asbury Park, also a former student in Asbury Park, of the need in that early childhood sphere,” she said.

Interfaith Neighbors started construction of the $3 million Early Childhood Learning Center last summer as part of the group’s $18 million Meeting the Moment campaign, designed to address issues including education, child care, food, job training and employment opportunities and affordable housing, as well as celebrating the cultural heritage of Asbury Park’s West Side neighborhood.

“I think a lot of times in communities that struggle with academics … where a lot of our students have lower scores and come from families that are struggling with income and struggling with poverty, a lot of times we overlook the early childhood,” Fabien said.

Too often “we wait until high school or middle school, until we realize kids can’t read, to help them out after the fact.”

“With the Early Childhood Learning Center, this brand-new center that is servicing the community that is a Montessori-style curriculum, is something different that is something new, something fresh,” Fabien said.

Montessori-style education, pioneered by Italian physician Maria Montessori in the early 20th century, emphasizes hands-on learning and encourages children to pursue their natural interests, rather than learning through more structured teaching methods.

The Early Childhood Learning Center, which serves children from 3 months to 3 years old, will offer tuition based on a family’s ability to pay, and serve as a hub for the entire family while connecting them with additional Interfaith services, programs and networks. The city’s public school district offers early childhood education to students who turn 3 years old by Oct. 1 of the school year.

“Even if your child is not in our school, we are offering parent education courses for the community. We are offering so many other resources, you don’t have to be enrolled as a student,” Fabien said. “We are finding all of our parents — new parents, immigrant parents, low-income, high-income, mixed income, whatever — whoever needs resources, come and get them.”

Interfaith Neighbors had hoped the center could open as early as this past January, but now has its sights set on September.

“(Some kids) have all these resources ahead of time and we are not realizing that our kids are starting off behind. It is not just an education issue, it is a poverty issue, it is an income issue. If they are not making enough money, then they are not spending enough time with their kids because they are working (multiple) jobs. It is all systemic,” Fabien said.

Infant classes will hold students up to 18 months, the toddler class for 18 months and older, and the early childhood class for 3 year olds and up.

“I believe that this is going to change the face of our young population because the biggest component of Montessori is respecting the child and seeing what the child brings to the table, and then you alter your curriculum based off what that child brings,” Fabien said.

She said “it is a different approach than regular education” which can be “kind of one-size-fits-all.”

“In our communities, we do need to start thinking outside the box and do something a little different, and not let our children’s creative mind and creative energy go to waste,” Fabien said.

Rodney Saloman, one of the founders of KYDS — Konscious Youth Development & Service — is the father of one of the students in the inaugural class.

“My son is (19 months old) and I got exposed to Montessori with my first son, who is 4 years old. I got introduced to some of her books just to help me be prepared as a father. I work in education systems. As much as I love our modern education, I always thought there was something missing,” Saloman said.

Saloman started his career as a youth development specialist in Asbury Park High School’s program.

When he found out that Interfaith Neighbors was building the new center, he thought, “this is where I need my son to be at, especially because he is going to be around a diverse population.”

“I am excited for my son. My older son’s school isn’t diverse, there’s not a lot of kids who look like him. But I am excited for my (younger) son to receive this quality level of education with the Montessori approach,” Saloman said. “Also for the community as well since it is going to expose the children who have the most potential to really begin to be nurtured and developed in a way that you’re not able to access in a public school system.”

He is also excited for his son to be around a “powerful director” like Fabien.

“I have known Ashley since she worked at Hope Academy. We used to work with each other during the Junior Entrepreneurship training program with Interfaith and seeing the woman that she is, it is a blessing to know that your child is surrounded by people who really care about their well-being and growth,” Saloman said.

Interfaith officials plan to “start off small” at the new school. They are not fully enrolled yet but interested parents can sign up for an interest session and learn more about their childcare program, or to be a part of the waitlist for childcare. Submitting the form on the site is the first step in having a child (or children) considered for future enrollment.

“We are going to build up over the years. By the end of next year we will be fully enrolled with our students. … As we build our clientele and talk to families and get referrals we will be fully, fully enrolled,” Fabien said.

Charles Daye is the metro reporter for Asbury Park and Neptune, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. @CharlesDayeAPP Contact him: [email protected].

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