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.



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.



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.



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.

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