NEW BETHLEHEM – The first day of school is typically exciting and memorable for students, parents and teachers alike, but this year’s was extra special for one teacher at Little Bird Preschool.
As the new owner of the long-standing New Bethlehem facility, Heather Gourley said last week that she is excited to start the next chapter in her life with a new school year filled with learning and play.
“Preschool is a really fun age and stage,” Gourley said. “I’m looking forward to being able to teach, love and guide the next generation as they prepare to enter public school.”
Gourley earned a bachelor’s degree in child development from Penn State University and moved back to her husband’s hometown of New Bethlehem 18 years ago. A stay-at-home mother for more than two decades, she spent her time engaged in her children’s lives through PTO, sports boosters, teaching Sunday school and serving as a home school instructor for six years.
As her children grew and started college, Gourley said she started looking for other ways to occupy her time. With the retirement of long-time Little Bird director Lois Hilliard in May, and the opportunity to purchase the business, Gourley found the opportunity to work outside the home at something she enjoyed. It also provided a flexible schedule to accommodate her at-home needs.
“The preschool schedule is part-time so it fits my schedule and allows me the flexibility to still be the mom that I’m used to being,” Gourley said, noting the school’s three-day per week schedule.
After completing some necessary courses at Clarion University and an in-classroom experience with Hilliard at Little Bird in the spring, Gourley had the necessary requirements to be a certified preschool teacher.
While she kept the nuts and bolts of the operation the same as previous years, Gourley incorporated a few personal touches to her classroom, which welcomed a new flock of Little Birds on Tuesday, Sept. 4.
“The environment has changed a little,” she said, noting first and foremost the incorporation of a STEM center in the classroom.
According to Gourley, the new STEM center is equipped to help students learn through play by incorporating items like blocks and cars into the lessons revolving around science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Children are curious at this age, and there is so much content in this area,” she said. “It revolves around stuff that kids already like to play with.”
Additionally, a music center will also be available for students to explore at all times.
“Lois always incorporated music into her lessons, but I wanted something that could be out all the time,” she continued.
As a way to encourage the continuation of learning outside the classroom, Gourley made learning backpacks available to all Little Bird students. Filled with different educational games, puzzles and other activities relating to a specific subject, the backpacks can be checked out by students to utilize over the weekends.
“It’s a great way to get the whole family involved,” Gourley said, adding that while most of the bags include activities for literacy practice now, she hopes to expand to other subjects in the near future.
With reading as one of her top priorities, Gourley said that she also has built a literacy enrichment program into her curriculum with the help of the Five in a Row program, which opens up a world of learning through books and creative play.
“It’s my goal to introduce the kids to classic stories that they may have never heard before,” Gourley explained. She said that many of the stories incorporate lessons from different subjects as well. “There is so much that can be taken from a good story.”
Noting the importance of hand-on learning at this young stage, Gourley said she would like to see Little Bird students reap the benefits of the unique learning opportunities that can be found in the local and surrounding areas.
“I want my students to know what is here, and grow that sense of pride,” she said, explaining that she would like to organize more trips to landmarks and businesses in New Bethlehem and surrounding areas.
She added that she would also like to collaborate with other preschool teachers in the area to bring more new learning experiences — such as traveling exhibits from organizations like the Pittsburgh Zoo — to all preschoolers in the community.
All in all, Gourley said that she is honored to have the opportunity to carry on the Little Bird legacy that Hilliard grew and nurtured over her tenure.
“I’m honored that I had the opportunity to purchase a business with a great reputation in the community and a wonderful teacher to follow behind,” she said. “I hope to be able to continue what Lois built while making it my own.”