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Prekindergarten teacher Jen Shepoka works in her classroom at St. Gerald School in Ralston.

Preschool options grow in Catholic education

Rebecca and Matt Zgoda of St. Patrick Parish in Fremont were looking for a faith-based preschool program for their 3-year-old son when they heard about the new Early Childhood Education Center operated by Archbishop Bergan Catholic School in Fremont.

"It’s really important that kids are grounded in the Catholic faith," Rebecca said. "I always feel like I’m able to turn to my faith when I’m struggling with something."

Their son, Vincent, also has some speech challenges, and a preschool looked like a good option, Rebecca said.

The timing was certainly right. Archbishop Bergan this fall expanded from its prekindergarten program at the school (serving 4- to 5-year-old children who are one year away from kindergarten) to serving Vincent and other 3-year-old preschool children at a renovated education center downtown.

And the school in Fremont is not alone in expanding. Even as work was being done there, St. Gerald School in Ralston was creating room for its first-ever prekindergarten program.

Those are just two examples of a burgeoning role schools play in serving prekindergarten and now preschool children, said Donna Bishop, assistant superintendent of schools in the archdiocese.

 

GROWING PROGRAMS

St. Bernadette School in Bellevue, for example, combined two rooms this summer to allow its program to grow from 21 students in last year’s prekindergarten class to 36 this year, plus seven children in a new preschool program.

And another school’s program – at St. Michael School in South Sioux City – is growing enough that officials are considering renovations to the building that holds its center, founded last year for children 6 weeks to 3 years old. The school also has a long-running prekindergarten program.

Several factors are driving the preschool effort, Bishop said, including more families with two working parents, a desire on the part of parishes and schools to serve all ages with faith-based education and increased expectations for students in lower grades.

And there is an added benefit for Catholic schools: families with students in preschool programs often keep those students in Catholic schools, Bishop said.

"By offering preschool and prekindergarten in our schools, it becomes a natural feeder into our K-12 system," she said.

 

EARLY EDUCATION

Parents began looking first for kindergarten classes in Catholic schools, in the mid- to late-1970s. According to a 2010 Catholic Voice article, kindergarten programs grew from 14 schools in the 1976-1977 school year to 50 schools by 2000.

Then parents began looking for prekindergarten programs – and over the last several years, preschool programs that serve even younger children, Bishop said.

Now, 46 of the archdiocese’s 53 elementary schools offer a preschool or prekindergarten program – 24 in the Omaha area and 22 in the rural area – and more schools are expected to add such programs in the future, Bishop said. In addition, one high school in Omaha, Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, runs a nursery and prekindergarten program.

 

NEW CURRICULUM

Across the country, children at younger ages are entering school settings, in part because studies indicate students who are not performing at grade level by third grade generally have a harder time than their peers as they progress through school, Bishop said.

This fall, the archdiocese introduced preschool and prekindergarten curriculum and resource tools to help teachers bring students to expected levels as they enter kindergarten, Bishop said. A committee of about a dozen preschool and kindergarten teachers and administrators met several times last school year to develop the curriculum, she said.

And this school year, the archdiocese is using Ignite the Faith capital campaign funds to offer tuition help for teachers who want to earn early childhood education endorsements and certificates, Bishop said.

The archdiocese also is arranging for classroom, Internet and satellite-based professional development sessions to help teachers earn the necessary credits, Bishop said.

"It’s a big push right now," Bishop said of early childhood education.

NEW PROGRAMS and EXPANSIONS

St. Gerald School, Ralston

Archbishop George J. Lucas celebrated Mass in St. Gerald School’s gym Sept. 2 and blessed the school’s new prekindergarten program.

Michaela Goerke, principal, said money from the Ignite the Faith capital campaign helped fund the necessary renovations, which included converting a resource room and using part of the library. With room for 12 prekindergarten students at a time, the school is serving 11 students in the morning and 10 in the afternoon – at an academic level that in years past would have been considered kindergarten, Goerke said.

"It’s almost like the old half-day kindergarten," she said.

 

Archbishop Bergan Catholic School, Fremont

The school held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 26 on its new Early Childhood Education Center. It serves 3-year-olds in a preschool program and provides before- and after-school child care programs for children in preschool up to grade six.

The school has been offering a prekindergarten program for years, but began studying a preschool program and other child care options last year, said Dan Koenig, principal.

Officials decided to renovate the parish’s community center downtown, which had been rented for bridal showers, wedding and birthday parties and other events, into the education center, Koenig said.

It provides the school and St. Patrick Parish another opportunity to serve families in a faith-based environment, Koenig said.

"The biggest thing is ministering to families," he said. "That’s the commission: to build disciples."

 

St. Michael School, South Sioux City

Administrators added to the school’s prekindergarten program last year with a new early childhood education center located in a former convent across the school parking lot, serving children 6 weeks old to 3 years old.

The center also provides an after-school program for all grades.

An open house is planned for late September as a way to publicize the center, said Zulema Nuno, its director. And school officials are discussing the possibility of expanding into the basement of the convent.

The center provides a faith-filled environment that includes help from religious sisters with the Leaven of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, said Sandra Williams, principal.

"A lot of our families really like that religious presence," Williams said.

 

St. Bernadette School, Bellevue

A preschool and larger prekindergarten program were introduced this year at St. Bernadette, said Lynn Schultz, principal.

Making room for the influx meant tearing down two walls on the first floor, combining two classrooms and a hallway, Schultz said.

"It’s really great to have the 3-year-olds in the kind of setting we can provide," she said. "Our 3- 4- and 5-year-olds are immersed in faith first – and they are being academically prepared for kindergarten."

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