During the 24 years that Connie Williams Coulianos has spent at Hollingworth Preschool, she has passed her love of learning like a torch to hundreds of students. That includes both the 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in the small program and the adults teaching here during their Columbia Teachers College graduate work.
“Connie is a brilliant teacher and a true believer in not underestimating what children are thirsty to learn,” said Amy Sprecher, whose son and daughter attended the preschool. “We always say our kids got the best education they will ever have at Hollingworth.”
As an assistant teacher and then director, Coulianos dedicated herself to the schooling of “developmentally precocious children,” a term she uses to describe those ready to take on learning at a level not typical for their age group.
Teacher Elizabeth Carlson said the Hollingworth philosophy encourages these students to be critical thinkers by providing a stimulating environment. As an example Carlson pointed to an old classroom loft that needed to be replaced. Instead of just having it taken down, Coulianos involved the children in planning which tools should be used to remove it and how the new loft should be built.
“The kids had ownership of the entire process,” Carlson said. “Now, when they’re confronted with problem solving on a smaller scale, they know how to approach it.”
When students have a question their teacher can’t answer, they will search together for a solution, consulting classmates, books or the Internet. This approach empowers them to search for resources and be responsible for how they acquire knowledge, Carlson added.
To assist them in their discovery, Coulianos taps into the children’s own curiosity, creativity and imagination, said Dr. Alice Wilder, producer of the popular television series Blue’s Clues, who hired Coulianos as an advisor.
“She allows them the opportunity to express themselves and to find their own way into learning,” Wilder said.
The recognition of students’ innate capabilities lies at the core of her work, said Coulianos.
“I have tremendous respect for their ability to become active participants in the inquiry,” she said. “I have respect for their humanity and their intellect—even at an early age.”
Su Chong, whose 4-year-old son attends Hollingworth, praised Coulianos for instilling a sense of responsibility in the classroom. This community spirit extends far beyond the school through projects like food drives for the local pantry and fundraisers for an orphanage in Kenya—all run with the full participation of students.
For Coulianos, it’s been immensely rewarding to see children leave Hollingworth with a toolbox full of strategies for asking questions, having their ideas heard and respecting others. But it’s also been difficult to see them leave so young. When the opportunity arose to develop an ongoing school for a similar population, Coulianos jumped at the chance. After nearly a quarter century at Hollingworth, she has signed up to lead The Speyer Legacy School, a new private school opening this fall.
Building on her experiences at the preschool, she hopes to offer the same enrichment to exceptional students beyond their 5th birthday.
“Children are not vessels to be filled but fires to be ignited,” she said, paraphrasing her favorite quote by Plutarch. “We have to keep the fire going as children grow older.”
Connie Williams Coulianos
Director, Hollingworth Preschool
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