Parents of preschoolers have had to make some major adjustments since New York first shut down in March, 2020. Liana Sargsyan-Quinn was among them, with an added responsibility: she’s an essential worker who provides care for working parents’ toddlers.
When Sargsyan-Quinn sought a preschool for her own first-born daughter and could not find a comfortable fit, she decided to start her own early learning center. Red Owl Academy opened its doors in 2017, and the language teacher began sharing her love of learning in the kind of environment she wanted for her own child: a safe, clean and nurturing one, where creativity, learning responsibility and building self-esteem give children the tools they need to succeed as they enter a new chapter in their lives: kindergarten. “As a parent, that’s what I want for my children…and I think every parent feels the same way.” Parents of Red Owl Academy’s preschoolers have constant contact with teachers throughout the day via Brightwheel, a smartphone app that can keep them posted on how their child is doing and what they are learning each day.
When the opportunity to lease a small school building from the South Orangetown School District arose, Sargsyan-Quinn met with SOSD officials to negotiate the space. She eagerly began planning for the Academy’s relocation from Sparkill, but Covid-19 delayed the move. Sargsyan-Quinn was sure that by the time all was said and done, the pandemic would be over–and that schools and schedules would return to the pre-Covid status quo. As it did with most everything else, the Pandemic kept the actual process of moving the school from one location to another even longer than she anticipated.
“We finally were able to move into the building over one weekend in December, 2020,” said the educator, “and as we all know, things did not go back to ‘normal.’” NYS and Board of Education mandates and guidelines have continued and change often; the masking debate continues; PPE costs have quadrupled; and finding qualified early-childhood teachers who are certified in both New York and New Jersey has been especially challenging.
“We had 22 students graduate in this year,” said Sargsyan-Quinn with a wide smile. “As part of the ceremony, each child drew a picture of the flag that represented their heritage. We had 17 flags, and I was amazed at the cultural mix of our students.” Her graduates also leave with a new language added to their growing vocabulary—French— adding a certain air of savoir faire to their early childhood experience. European-born Sargsyan-Quinn taught French in Armenia and Belgium; when she came to the United States to obtain her master’s degree at CUNY Baruch University, she met her future husband. Both of the couple’s children are bi-lingual.
Red Owl Academy’s focus is STEM-based, says its founder. “All our projects foster creativity…there are no ‘worksheets’ here. Children learn hands-on…they need to see, touch, feel and build to gain understanding. Books play an important part in the learning process. This month, we spent time learning all about trees—how many different kinds there are, which ones have flowers or berries, what kind of animals make their homes in them, why they change color–and how the trees help the environment. We all have shoes we wear outdoors and another pair to wear inside the school. It takes time and patience to teach them which shoe goes on which foot and how to store their shoes in their cubby when they come in from playing…children are sponges, they soak everything up; when they learn to do things for themselves, it’s a great accomplishment that keeps them eager to learn more.” By learning how to care for themselves and for each other, says Sargsyan-Quinn, children are better prepared for kindergarten–and what lies beyond.
Serendipity brought Red Owl Academy’s assistant director Fran Taibi and Sargsyan-Quinn together. After retiring from Good Shepherd Preschool in Pearl River, Taibi missed working with young children. On the other side of town, the preschool owner was looking for someone to help her in the Academy’s new location. “We had a mutual acquaintance who knew both our situations, and he introduced us to each other…we hit it off right away. I love it here and working with Liana,” said Taibi. Both share the same values when it comes to education and the benefit of early learning, and the comradery between the two educators is apparent.
Red Owl Academy currently has 38 children ranging in age from infant to age four enrolled and currently uses three of the five classrooms in the school. Plans to expand services are certain, but the timetable is not. “The need is great,” said Sargsyan-Quinn, “and we have several families on our waiting list. We plan to expand, but that’s going to take time.” She’s also gotten several requests for before- and after-school care. “It’s a growing need, especially now that parents have been called back to work. Some parents need a 12-hour day. That’s something we cannot currently provide, and I feel for them wholeheartedly, because no parent wants that long of a day for their young child. Right now, we are planning to have a before-and after-school program in place by the beginning of the next school year–September, 2022.”