Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013 | 2 a.m.
If the concept of American schools were reinvented, it might look something like 9th Bridge School.
Located in a renovated church at the corner of 9th Street and Bridger Avenue in downtown Las Vegas, 9th Bridge represents a bold experiment in school design.
“We want to inspire a new generation of learners,” said Nikki Goldstein, the preschool’s director. “We want to redefine the experience of school.”
Featuring a plethora of large, arched windows, folding walls and transparent doors, 9th Bridge blurs the line between the classroom and the outside world. Colorful toys, playgrounds and gardens provide a dynamic stage for interactive lessons, which have been designed with the help of local and national neuroscientists and education experts.
Teachers, trained in how young brains learn, stimulate young minds and allow for student interests to drive instruction. Educators use a blend of traditional books and new digital tools like tablet computers to engage children in traditional skills such as reading and math, but also creative skills such as art, music and drama. One teacher even speaks Chinese to the children, helping students acclimate to new languages.
“It’s everything a parent could hope for in early childhood education,” said Las Vegas resident Ann Welch, whose 4-year-old son Liam goes to 9th Bridge. “It’s so creative, just so out of the box. I’ve never seen anything like this in education before.”
The private preschool, funded by Downtown Project, opened its doors Monday. The school is the brainchild of Connie Yeh, Downtown Project’s director of educational outreach.
Less than two years ago, Yeh was working at a New York City finance firm, counting down the days until retirement, she said. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, Yeh’s cousin, offered her what she now calls a “once-in-a lifetime opportunity” to open a new school downtown.
Ninth Bridge is an integral part of Hsieh’s vision to transform downtown into a place where denizens can live, work and play, Yeh said. The school, which currently caters to children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, is hoping to serve families living and working downtown, such as Zappos employees and downtown lawyers.
Yeh’s new venture also will test whether a posh, private school can thrive in a dynamic, urban environment and a redeveloping neighborhood. Annual tuition ranges from $13,000 to $15,000, although there are scholarships and discounts available for Zappos and Downtown Project employees, downtown residents and families with siblings.
Eventually, Yeh hopes to expand the school to other campuses, attracting elementary, middle and high school students. Currently, 9th Bridge has 15 students and can accept up to 100.
The preschool had its grand opening last week. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who opened her own private school 29 years ago, said that although starting a school from scratch was challenging, it could transform entire neighborhoods and communities.
“This is a you-can-do-it school,” Goodman said.
Here are glimpses of the preschool's campus, which will be finished in the next few weeks.
9th Bridge is housed in a church, originally built in 1946. The church bell was constructed in Albany, N.Y., in the 1860s and transported to Las Vegas. Before 9th Bridge moved in, Las Vegas housed its Downtown Senior Services Center there. The school is surrounded by an 8-foot-tall metal fence and security cameras to keep children safe.
Ninth Bridge’s youngest students, infants and toddlers from age 6 weeks and up, will be in a special nursery room.
Toddlers at 9th Bridge can play in the school’s quad, separate from older children.
9th Bridge’s playground, which is still under construction, will incorporate turf grass and shade structures. Nearby, children and their families will be able to build a garden and learn about plant ecology.
The philosophy at 9th Bridge in transparency for parents, so the school campus was built to have wide swaths of windows that allow visitors to peer into classrooms. Parents also may plug their headphones into the wall jacks to listen into the classrooms through microphones in the ceiling.
Colorful toys, games, musical instruments and activities are shown in the classroom for 3- and 4-year-olds. The school’s curriculum is based on neuroscience but incorporates elements of Montessori, Reggio and other early childhood school models. Children eat their lunches, which were created by Three Square Food Bank, in the classroom. There is a small school reading room near the lobby where parents and teachers can read to children.
9th Bridge classrooms are outfitted with sliding glass doors that allow different age levels to interact with each other. Some classrooms also have sliding glass garage doors that allow classes to have easy access to the outdoors.