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Among the hundreds of students at the medical center, is an especially young group that comes onto campus every day. These students, who range in age from 2 to 6, make the trip with a parent and usually can't wait to get to school, where they'll likely spend the day enjoying activities such as singing, drawing, playing with blocks, or splashing around in a kiddie pool. They attend the Medical Center Nursery School in Bard-Haven Tower l.

"On our drive in from Yonkers, we have time to talk and sing songs. After we park the car, we walk over together and I start the first activity of the day with my kids," says Dr. Petra Kaufman, Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Neurology, who has two children at the school, a 6-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy.

Parents find that being nearby helps ease children's separation anxiety. "My kids think they're going to the same place I'm going. They know where my office is. That's comforting for them," says Dr. Jeanine D'Armiento, assistant professor of medicine, who has one son, age 3, at the school and another, age 5, who graduated this year. "One day we forgot lunch and Rosa Diaz [the assistant director of the school] went downstairs and bought lunch for me for the kids. The school's staff understands the working parent's needs."

Tucked away on the second floor at 60 Haven Avenue, the school's existence dates back to 1955 when a small group of parents, supported by the Women's Auxiliary of what was then Presbyterian Hospital, began organizing a nursery school for children of interns and residents working at the hospital. It opened in October 1957 with a class of 17 children in a small, ground-floor apartment on 165th Street between Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue.

To help keep tuition low in the early years, the school's advisory board held an annual spring fund-raising dance, the Mother Goose Ball, in places such as Bard Hall, the armory, and area country clubs.

In September 1971, when the Bard-Haven Towers opened, the school moved into its current location in Tower I, beginning its affiliation with Columbia University, which provides the space to the nursery school rent-free.

With a current enrollment of more than 70 children, the school has three classrooms with Hudson River views. The center has a third-floor terrace, with an outdoor playground that contains a large, colorful jungle gym. In the summer, a shallow wading pool is set up on the terrace.

Today, the school's Parents Association leads the fundraising efforts, which include an annual November concert in Bard, a book fair in December, and a silent auction in the spring. "The Parents' Association brings in money to pay for specialists such as visiting circus performers, musicians and artists. It's easier to bring someone in than take 73 little ones out," says Mayra Marte-Miraz, director of operations for the Department of Medicine, past Parents Association president, and new member of the school's Board of Trustees. Her 5-year-old son graduated in the spring.

Mrs. Marte-Miraz, along with the other parents, cites the school's stability and diversity as major attractions. Howard E. Johnson, director of the school, and Mercedes Skeeter, a teacher, have each worked there for 25 years. Ms. Diaz, the assistant director, has worked in the school for 14 years. "We have a large staff – 12 with teaching responsibilities. The average length of service for a teacher is 11 years," Mr. Johnson says.

Sixty percent of the students are children of Columbia employees and 40 percent are from the northern Manhattan community. The enrollment is a mix of Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, and African American and includes several foreign-born children.

The school's emphasis is on teaching young children how to play and communicate with each other. The curriculum focuses on developing social, emotional, and physical skills through the use of dramatic play, books, water, sand, art materials, music and movement, and outdoor and active play.

During Mr. Johnson's 30-year career in early childhood education, the field has not changed substantially – the emphasis remains on the social and emotional development of children. "The focus on the whole child has remained constant and the school has retained that," he says.

One of the unusual aspects of being a medical school-affiliated nursery school occurs when pediatric residents and researchers come to the classroom to observe normal childhood development. "The school only takes part in carefully screened research projects," Mr. Johnson says. "But it's always interesting for the children to have the researchers here."

In one ongoing study, Dr. Harry R. Kissileff, professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry and medicine at P&S, is working at the nursery to try to gain a better understanding of how young children perceive hunger and satiety. This work is part of a larger study on childhood obesity.

Mr. Johnson says the Columbia nursery school has met the early education needs of many hundreds of children over the years and will continue to do so into the new century. "We will always be dynamic and current with the best ways to start children in education. Yet we will continue to maintain our most important, and perhaps most old-fashioned asset – stability," he says.


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