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Woog's World / Westporters help bridge the gap with city kids

Updated 10:18 am, Wednesday, June 19, 2013
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Patty Lewis has seen the highs and lows of living in Fairfield County. She's also experienced the joys and anguish of living life itself.

The Greenwich native taught second grade at Greens Farms Academy for three years, then left to raise a family. Years later, she returned to the private school as an admissions officer.

Tragedy struck on Sept.11, 2001, when her husband -- working in the World Trade Center -- was killed.

At Greens Farms she worked with Julie Mombello. The Westporter had a similar career path: She taught at GFA, then returned to a new job in admissions after having children. Both women were struck reading the applications of Bridgeport students who wanted to attend the selective school buy lacked the proper educational background. Lewis and Mombello realized the youngsters' disadvantage began as early as preschool.

In Westport, preschool -- where children explore the world using all their senses, and learn letters, numbers, scientific observation, music, art, language, problem-solving, cooperation, coordination and many other skills -- is a given. That's less true in Bridgeport, where the cost of preschool can be daunting.

Lewis and Mombello vowed to do what they could to give little children just a few miles from Westport the same advantages their own kids had.

For Lewis, the mission was intensely personal. When her late husband Adam was growing up in a Bronx family with little money, he was offered a high school scholarship to Dalton. That experience -- and a scholarship to Hamilton College that followed -- changed his too-short life.

The Bridgeport project Lewis and Mombello envisioned is called the Adam J. Lewis Preschool. Naming it was the easy part. Getting it going -- finding a building, designing the curriculum, getting the word out and, especially , fundraising -- has consumed much of the past two years.

Many obstacles have been overcome. Lewis, Mombello and a small but intensely hard-working group of family and friends has fully renovated a building in Bridgeport's West End. One large classroom will hold up to 24 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. The space is divided into learning centers filled with stimulating educational materials, encouraging youngsters to explore and learn.

Additional space upstairs is planned for music, rest and individual assessments. Outdoors, children will romp on a large, interactive playground.

Navigating Bridgeport's notorious bureaucracy was not easy. From building permits to licensing, the preschool founders learned that nothing happens simply.

But their vision drove them forward. They're creating a warm, welcoming place. The holistic program will help children build confidence, acquire skills and develop character necessary to take advantage of future educational opportunities.

A good preschool, the Adam J. Lewis founders and board believes, can lay the foundation for the rest of life. (Low-income children in Bridgeport enter kindergarten already a full 18 months behind in language skills. Only 3 percent of Bridgeport students graduate from college.)

Tuition is tailored to each family's need. No child will be denied admission due to inability to pay.

That's easier said than done. It costs approximately $7,000 a year to educate one child. Few families in Bridgeport's West End can afford that sum. Last month, a low-key fundraiser was held at a private home. Over 150 attendees -- some of whom were intimately involved in the school's planning, others knowing very little -- were awed by what they saw and heard.

Some offered to sponsor one child for an entire year. Others funded books, tricycles and sleeping mats. Men and women also volunteered to read to children, help with marketing, paint the building -- whatever their talent, they wanted to do something.

Adam J. Lewis Preschool educators take a three-pronged approach. The school program itself will provide each child with an innovative, enriched, high-quality and individualized experience that strengthens cognitive skills like problem-solving, along with character skills like perseverance, communication and self-esteem.

School personnel will work closely with parents, providing support to reinforce and extend youngsters' education at home.

And as students graduate, the school will ease the transition to kindergarten by communicating with teachers, and pass along samples of work done.

Adam J. Lewis will also offer advice about high-quality elementary schools (the choices in Bridgeport can be confusing).

"So many people want to do something meaningful for Bridgeport," says Anne Hardy, another Westporter involved in the planning. "But the problems can seem overwhelming. This is a small, concrete way."

Patty Lewis -- who has worked indefatigably to make the school bearing her late husband's name a reality -- adds simply, "Bridgeport is so close to us. Yet the opportunities and lives of children there are so different than in a place like Westport. To be able to help your neighbor like this is very powerful."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.