CORALVILLE – Leslie Nolte isn’t the average preschool teacher. For starters, she doesn’t have a degree in education. While she does teach her students to count, she said she typically does it by twos, fours, sixes and eights, instead of the traditional one, two, three and four.
Nolte, the owner of the Nolte Academy of Dance in Coralville, is the self-described landlord of the newly opened Performing Arts Preschool.
The school shares space with the dance academy, but Nolte insists they are two separate entities.
“It’s easy to get the Performing Arts Preschool confused with, ‘We’re gonna dance for three hours under Miss Leslie’s instruction,’ and so we had to convince people that it was absolutely an intellectual, scholastic, literacy, numeracy, social studies program for the majority of the time,” Nolte said.
Classes began at the school on Sept. 4. There are two- and three-day sessions and the school has almost hit its 16-student capacity for the programs.
A typical day begins with a short welcome from the lead teacher, Sarah Pritchard, who is a former first-grade teacher in both public and private schools. The class schedule sections time off for lessons in literacy, social studies, math, music, visual art, dance and drama.
Students also spend time in self-directed centers focusing on the alphabet, reading, writing, blocks and drama.
According to Nolte, not all the parents involved easily digested that buffet of arts-centric education.
“I would say half of our families signed up immediately when they saw our Create Curriculum description in our brochure,” Nolte said, invoking the acronym for the curriculum she and her administrative team developed for the school. “The other half was a little bit harder to convince that we weren’t going to have this artsy fartsy program for three hours a day.”
The preschool is the culmination of Nolte’s lifelong dream, which crystallized after she said she saw how her five children had grown academically because of their involvement in creative pursuits. Last year she assembled a “dream team” of local arts professionals to make the dream a reality.
“I realized as a dance educator that the young age group of 3 to 5 is capable of more. They’re just capable of being pushed. I think that they learn even when they don’t know they’re learning, and I’ve seen this within dance,” Nolte said. “I think they can do more so why not give them more?”
Nolte gathered her dream team — a seven-person staff of music, visual art and education specialists — and began writing curriculum in January, incorporating the Iowa Department of Education’s Early Learning Standards. The result is “a full curriculum that you very rarely see in a preschool,” said Beth Ackerson, who serves as the school’s director.
The September through May calendar is divided into six-week themes. The first is family, and each class touches on the central idea in a different way.
In music, students listen to a recording of various voices and try to figure out which voice belongs to which member of a family, a father, a mother, a baby or an older child.
In literacy, learners read stories about families. In visual art, students will make creations depicting families and in dance, students will learn about the different dance families, Pritchard said.
Students will cultivate math skills by finding out who in the class has siblings and how many, then plotting the results on a graph. At the end of each six-week cycle, the students will create and perform a presentation for their parents.
Pritchard, whose 3-year-old daughter Chloe is a student at the preschool, was drawn to the chance to teach there in part out of a feeling that “the arts are getting lost.”
“(The team) wanted not so traditional,” she said. “We wanted kids to experience the curriculum so they’d better understand it … We want kids to learn through the arts.”
Ackerson, who has taught music at Longfellow Elementary School in Iowa City for 12 years, also has strong feelings about the role of arts in education.
“Arts aren’t only a way into academics. They’re their own thing too,” she said. “While we do believe that the arts do further literacy and other areas, they also have their own purpose.”
While the school is only weeks into its first year, staff members are already upbeat about student performance.
“The kids are eager,” said Erin Ebnet, who teachers music at the preschool. “I think it’s wonderful. They’re still working on everything they’d work on in preschool (but) with a real focus on their creative sides.”
Eventually, Ackerson and Nolte would like to see the school evolve into offering program for older students, with Nolte’s eyes firmly set on a performing arts high school. Until that day comes, Nolte is focused on her current students.
“Real success is our 5-year-olds going to kindergarten next year a step ahead,” she said. “That’s ultimate success.”