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PRESCHOOLERS AT COLUMBIA HIGH SCHOOL? by Ellen Donker, Research by Carol Petrallia

Updated: Mar 15

Innovative program groomed future teachers

Like most schools, Columbia High School once had a home economics department. But did you know that from 1974 to 1983 the department also ran a preschool in the C-wing of the building?

An article from The Columbian, dated December 20, 1974, describes the program: “The pre-school laboratory under the direction of Mrs. Marguerite Cryer, head of the Home Economics Department, is a pilot program for students interested in preschool education or those desiring a supplement to Child Development I and II.


“Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 9:00 – 11:30 a.m., 15 three and four year old children attend pre-school at Columbia High School. Room C221 was converted into a playroom where the pre-school is conducted in one, open classroom atmosphere. Fifteen juniors and seniors work with the children under the direction of Mrs. Betsy Geiger, a Kean College Student who is studying early childhood education.


“'Our concern is for the education of the high school children,’ commented Mrs. Cryer. The one semester course provides a background in child psychology, special education, parenthood and other careers involving pre-school education. Although the laboratory pre-school does provide pre-school children with an academic background it offers an opportunity for the high school students to gain experience.”


Karen Volk Menke taught special education for 32 years, followed by other teaching-related work. “It all stemmed from working in the Columbia preschool program,” she says.

The article continues, “The students received textbooks and did reading assignments before the children arrived. One day of the week is reserved for workshop sessions where the students discuss their relations with the children and the observations they have made.”


Children were chosen by lottery and the cost to attend was $15 per semester to cover snacks and miscellaneous play items. The Board of Education funded the program with $3,500 in innovation funds.


Geiger, the former long-time director at Prospect Preschool, has fond memories of the CHS preschool program. She recalls that the program had a large budget, enabling them to buy new toys and materials and to put in a playground behind the administration building.


Interviews with former students of the preschool course cite it as invaluable for directing their future careers. Barbara Cocuzza Kirner, from the class of 1979, loved working with the children and recalls class members sitting on couches in the classroom brainstorming lesson plans for the next week. She says, “[The program] solidified what I wanted to be when I left high school.” After college, she taught preschool and now teaches special education.


Debra Gomer, from the class of 1980, participated in the program three times. She credits it for giving her a glimpse for the first time of what she might want to do with her future. “It was my experience in this program that made me want to become a teacher/administrator,” she says. “I taught third grade at Seth Boyden for seven years, Spanish at Maplewood Middle and Columbia for a long time and also served as the Supervisor for World Languages and ESL for the District.” After 28 years, Gomer retired from teaching.


CHS class of 1977 grad Karen Volk Menke is equally enthusiastic. She says, “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. That was my push all through school.” Hal Young, her guidance counselor, saw how well she did in the preschool program and arranged an independent study at the Seth Boyden School, teaching children with multiple disabilities. After college and graduate school, Menke taught special education for 32 years, followed by other teaching-related work. “It all stemmed from working in the Columbia preschool program,” she says.


The program was discontinued in 1983. Although our research produced no conclusive reason, it was likely due to budget cuts in the Home Ec department. Another conjecture is that the high school needed the classroom when the ninth grade was shifted from the middle schools (then called junior high schools) to Columbia High School.