Thirty-six years ago Sandy Popko and her sister Carol Besler started Little Friends School on the property of 221 Edinburg Road, Hamilton. Sandy was a 25-year-old with a passion for education. The school started with Sandy as the owner, director and teacher. Today Little Friends School continues to thrive with Sandy operating the school along with her partner, Debbie Monahan, who took over for her sister 16 years ago.
Little Friends School offers classes for children aged 18 months through kindergarten. They have a Toddler 1 class, for children 18 months to 30 months old, a 2 1/2 to 3-year-old class, as well as full and half-day classes for three and four year olds, plus a kindergarten class. Little Friends School is open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Little Friends also offers a unique summer camp experience for ages 18 months to 10 years, divided into three groups: toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary age. Both full days and half days are available and include a variety of activities including special events and trips based on weekly themes.
Little Friends School is a licensed facility that meets all state guidelines. All classes, including before care, after care, summer camp and holiday care are taught by qualified teachers. Sandy says, “We foster a strong relationship with our families. The teachers are here for the children. They are kept safe, happy, and have fun while learning so the parents can rest assured their children are well taken care of while they are at work.” Teachers work different shifts to ensure at least on of them is with their students at all points throughout the day. They do not rely on part-time staff to fill in for before and after care.
Sandy continues: “The teachers here are really good. We’ve had children come here because our teachers have been here many years. Many times we get the children of former students.” Their fully day four-year-old teacher, Bonnie Gunzelman, retired in June, 2015, after teaching 31 years. She continues to visit the school and works as a substitute teacher. Debbie said “she has had kids grow up and come back with their children. They tell their children, ‘I had Miss Bonnie.’ She looks at them and says, ‘Oh, you are back, all grown up!’”
Other teachers have also been there for many years. Jan Fasiska, the kindergarten teacher, is continuing to teach after 31 years at Little Friends School. Miss Rosemarie Bonacchi has been there 18 years, as well as Jay Padmanabjan, who has been at Little Friends School 14 years.
The curriculum at Little Friends School is “geared toward fostering skills needed for success in school. We strive to instill a love of learning in each child and celebrate their success along the way. Daily activities are designed to encourage and challenge each child’s natural curiosity and instill skills that prepare children for later school success. We respect each child’s individuality and strive to provide a curriculum that addresses the special interests of each child to achieve their full potential,” explains Sandy.
The curriculum is theme-based. Each month the theme changes, although pre-reading, math, science, language, and gross motor skills are built into each theme and remain constant throughout the year.
Little Friends School is the “best kept secret in Hamilton.” There are two buildings on the property with the main building not quite visible from the road. The front building houses for four-year-old and kindergarten classrooms, while the back building is where the 18 month to three-year-olds hold their classes.
Children enrolling in the kindergarten class must turn five before December 31. The cut-off for kindergarten in Hamilton is October 1. Enrollment is open all year, as long as there is availability. They enroll between 10 and 12 students in the kindergarten class. The kindergarten class meets the state requirements for public school kindergarten.
In addition to teachers, parents also play an important role in their children’s education. “We work to foster strong relationships with the families enrolled in our program. We believe that teachers and parents should be partners in the education process,” continues Sandy. After all, parents know their child best.
Little Friends School
221 Edinburgh Road, Mercerville, NJ 08619