Early Learning Research Academy will Set Infants, Toddlers, and Pre-Schoolers on the Path to College

Early Learning Research Academy will Set Infants, Toddlers, and Pre-Schoolers on the Path to College

In the last 10 years, nearly 500 Camden children have passed through the Early Learning Research Academy's (ELRA)  pre-school program. The youngsters were housed either in rented space at LEAP Academy Charter School or in modular trailers on Rutgers’ campus. 

But all that changes in July. 

This summer, Rutgers–Camden will open the Knight ELRA building – a three-story, 12,000-foot learning and research


center for children from birth to age 5 – and give these students the permanent school they have waited for. 

“Students are already really psyched about it,” said Emily Meredith, director of instruction for ELRA. “I think they are excited and proud because they know this building is for them.” 

The children have kept a close eye on the construction progress, making weekly visits to the building site and interacting with workers like “Mr. Tony” and “Mr. Steve.”  During one early visit, one student said, incredulously, “This is a lot of work.” 

“It was great for them to have the opportunity to see the construction,” said ELRA pre-school teacher Carrie O’Connor.  “I think that was important for them to see that doing something well and making something beautiful takes a lot of hard work.” 

For the Rutgers' Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership (CSUCL), the foundation of that hard work extends as far back as 2001, when the ELRA program began providing full-day preschool education to 45 3-and 4-year old children in Camden City.  In addition to literacy, math, and social development, the program provides dual-language learning that involves instruction three days a week completely in Spanish. 

“The program is working.  Students are learning through routine and are constantly encouraged to speak as they develop their vocabulary,” said Meredith, who believes the new building will only improve students’ progress. 

ELRA’s early success, including an expansion from 45 to 90 students in 2005, led the Rutgers CSUCL to begin plans for its own building to reach children younger than 3.  Since then, the CSUCL has fundraised $3.5 million for the ELRA building, which will be built in two phases. 

Phase One will create space for 30 pre-schoolers and allow the CSUCL to launch its new Infant and Toddler literacy and development program, which will service 12 infants and 20 toddlers (age 6-months to 3) and increase their exposure to language and build their literacy.

“We have to reach students at an even earlier age and set them on the path to college,” said Rutgers professor Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, who is the director of the CSUCL and ELRA.  “ELRA provides a way to engage children in essential learning in order to erase the urban achievement deficit while tracking their lifelong academic progress.”

Santiago said the new ELRA building is part of the Rutgers CSUCL’s larger vision to create a birth-to-16 “educational pipeline” in Camden.  In that vision, she said, a Camden City child enrolls at ELRA, continues on to LEAP Academy (K-12), and earns a bachelor’s degree, and potentially an advanced degree, at Rutgers. 

She hopes that pipeline – and the research produced in ELRA’s childhood study labs – can become a national model and influence hundreds of educators and policymakers and thousands of children.

“We need to reach more than just 122 kids in Camden.  We need all children to have an equal opportunity,” said ELRA preschool teacher Maritza Lopez, a former kindergarten teacher who has seen the benefits of early childhood education. 

“ELRA shows that children can learn at an early age,” said Maritza.  “The sooner you start teaching them, the more they will love to learn, and if we can make it easy for them to love learning they will carry that with them forever.”

The first step begins this fall, when the first group of pre-schoolers look up at their new building and see the iron-cast letters E-L-R-A donning the facade. 

“It will be nice to have a home of our own,” said Meredith.  “This is our building.”