Not so long ago, children would be sufficiently prepared for kindergarten simply by knowing basics like colors, numbers and the alphabet.

“It’s a different world,” Peters Township native Karen Rutledge said, “and if they don’t go to preschool, they’re already behind.”

To help youngsters keep up, especially with technology-related subjects, she and her husband, Thomas, founded the tuition-free Rutledge Institute for Early Childhood Education in 2018 on the campus of California University of Pennsylvania.

Starting in September, the Rutledges have decided to double the size of the program, to 40 students ages 3 to 5.

“My goal is to help the kids, and in doing that, it helps their parents or their caregivers,” Karen said. “It helps their home life and then maybe helps the whole community.”

The Rutledge Institute is operated by The Village, a California Borough nonprofit that provides free preschool to single parents who are enrolled full-time in an educational program.

“Mrs. Rutledge’s vision is to provide high-quality preschool for children who otherwise would not have that opportunity,” Cherie Sears, The Village president, said about the institute. “There is an income requirement, but it’s very generous. In return, the children have to come five days a week, at least five hours a day, and the parents agree to attend quarterly parent workshops.”

A particular focus is on STREAM education – science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and mathematics – along with literacy in navigating sources of information.

“Every child has an iPad,” Sears said, of the students who have completely supervised use.

Students work with technologically advanced tools such as NoRILLA, described as a “mixed-reality educational system bridging physical and virtual worlds,” and Hatch Solutions’ WePlaySmart, an interactive touch table.

“The kids will do something, and they’ll clap for themselves and get all excited. I can see them right outside the window from my office, and watching those ‘a-ha!’ moments is really neat,” Sears said. “They think they’re playing, but it’s all learning activities.”

When the Rutledges traveled from their Connecticut home for the most recent visit to the institute, they came away impressed.

“With all the activities that were going on, there wasn’t one kid who wasn’t involved,” Karen said. “And they were involved because they wanted to be. I’ve even heard stories sometimes how they don’t want to leave at the end of the day. So we feel pretty good about it, and in the perfect world, everybody would have this.”

The couple began working with Cal U. about a decade and a half ago by offering scholarships to nontraditional students, later expanding the program to those studying economics, Thomas’ major at the university.

Meanwhile, their grandchildren had begun attending preschool, “and I saw what a difference that makes,” Karen recalled.

The topic came up during the Rutledges’ dinner one evening with Geraldine Jones, Cal U.’s president at the time, and her husband, Jeffrey.

“I told them my idea about how I wanted to start a preschool,” Karen recalled, “and they took off. I swear, they left the table and got the ball rolling right away. They were a really integral part of putting this all together.”

Along with the early childhood component is the Rutledge Institute Scholars program, in which Cal U. students spend time in the classrooms assisting teachers and gaining practical experience that they won’t get from textbooks.

“They come in as freshmen. They’re just so raring to go. The university does a great job in finding people like that,” Karen said. “It really makes me want to help them. I just like to see them get out of school debt-free.”

Her husband, who also grew up in Peters Township, graduated from what then was California College in 1977. Today, he is chairman and chief executive officer of Charter Communications, which provides Internet, TV, voice and mobile communications to more than 31 million customers in 41 states.

“I’m really so grateful to be able to have the opportunity to do it, that all of our decisions worked out and that we have so much now to share,” Karen said.

They lived in California Borough while Thomas was earning his degree and have moved eight times since.

“Wherever you go, you see need,” Karen said. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Why did you go back there? If you could help somewhere, why there?’

“My husband and I both have a real feel for the Mon Valley. It just made sense. And when I go there, I feel like I’m at home,” she said. “You never really leave.”

Their goal of providing state-of-the-art learning opportunities is supported by research, according to Sears.

“They’re really finding that there are lifetime benefits: health, more education, better jobs, better income,” she said. “And all those things get traced back to, did they have a high-quality, positive early childhood education?”

For Karen Rutledge, the more youngsters who can say yes to that question, the better.

“I always say, when I go back there and see the kids, I’m the happiest person there,” she said.

“It really, really makes my day.”

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Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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