You might say early-childhood teacher Courtney O’Grady, with help from her students aged three and four, as well as their parents, is writing the book on pre-kindergarten classes as a growing force in Catholic schools.
“One of my favorite annual projects is to make a book—with help from the children’s families—called Future Saints, Class of xxxx, whatever year they will graduate,” said O’Grady, who teaches pre-school at the Cathedral of St. Raymond Catholic School in Joliet, IL.
“We talk about how the kids can all be friends to Jesus and maybe become saints one day. Our book incorporates pictures of each child as a baby, with the story behind the name they were given and also a current picture.”
Each student gets a turn to take the book home. “I love involving families with projects like this because I also feel a responsibility to help parents feel included, welcomed, and valued,” O’Grady said in a recent interview. “I think we need to partner with families so they feel motivated to participate in their child’s faith formation.”
This is not your typical pre-K class or “day care” experience. But pre-K offerings have multiplied in Catholic schools around the country. One University of Notre Dame scholar’s report, completed in 2013, concluded that “early-childhood programming is already a key component of the Catholic educational enterprise,” with pre-school enrollment in 11 (arch)dioceses studied having risen 20 percent over five years.*
Data from the National Catholic Educational Association show that 11.3 percent of total enrollments in Catholic elementary schools (through grade 8) were in pre-school classes as of 2014-2015, up from 8.4 percent ten years earlier.
The trend is not gigantic, but noteworthy initiatives are helping to drive the numbers, according to educators. One is the faith-based element of “new evangelization” Catholic schools are extending to children of a younger age—and, importantly, to their parents—when they set up pre-school programs.
Another factor is the fit some Catholic schools have found as they pursue dual goals—pre-school growth and an increase in Latino enrollment—at the same time.
“The best way to make sure you have robust enrollments is to create opportunities for more families to come,” said Patrick Patterson, principal of Roanoke Catholic School in Virginia, where a class for 4-year-olds was recently revived to complement the kindergarten-through-high school curriculum.
Patterson resumed pre-K4 this year, seeing an opportunity that earlier budgeting models had missed. Technically, pre-school classes for kids age 3 and 4 had failed to pay for themselves, although a small “pre-K3” class, formed earlier to meet parents’ needs, has continued.
A new factor has emerged. The Diocese of Richmond has ramped up its Segura Initiative, which promotes Latino enrollments in diocesan schools. English language learners are the fastest growing population in U.S. schools, creating both challenges and opportunities.
One key to the initiative in Richmond is grassroots recruitment conducted by members of the Latino community called Segura Advocates. The idea parallels the “madrinas” model of outreach from the Catholic School Advantage Campaign and the Latino Enrollment Initiative, both led by Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE).
As more Latino families have learned about the quality and affordability of Catholic schools, enrollments have increased. Roanoke Catholic recommitted to both “pre-K4” and “pre-K3” classes when the number of prospective students attracted by the Segura program jumped by 50 percent, Patterson said.
“What we’re finding, as parents start to look at moving their kids from a public school to a Catholic school, you’re not looking at a single student from each Latino family, but rather 3, 4, or 5 kids,” because the extended family doesn’t want to divide its children between different schools.
Roanoke wants to help keep the families together, and it can innovate—with tuition structures, the tapping of community resources available to kids in all schools, and versatile scheduling of its teachers, specialists and aides, for example—to ease the budgetary challenges for all concerned, too.
“It’s a really exciting time,” Patterson said. Besides meeting working families’ needs and building community engagement, more students in all the grades are benefiting from what sociologists have called the Catholic School advantage—a boon for disadvantaged students overcoming academic achievement gaps. More access to pre-kindergarten courses, taught by educators trained in early-childhood, special education, and English as a New Language skills, can spark cognitive growth earlier.
Joana Camacho, principal of Sacred Heart School in Oklahoma City, sees a big difference between students who enter in her school’s pre-K4 class and those who start in kindergarten. “It’s like night and day in their readiness for learning,” she said.
O’Grady, who studies English as a New Language teaching through ACE, added there’s a literacy advantage. “In early childhood, we are in a position to truly support English language learners, or dual language learners.” Early literacy gains in one language improve second-language literacy, broadening improvements in learning through future grades.
A school’s increases in both Latino enrollment and pre-K enrollment benefits everyone, Patterson said. Students with non-Latino backgrounds gain valuable exposure to global cultures, languages, and perspectives.
Camacho, the Oklahoma City principal who participates in Notre Dame’s Latino Enrollment Initiative, added that her school extends its teaching vocation to Latino families in its inner-city neighborhood. A “parent university,” held on Saturdays, offers instruction on such topics as Internet safety, how to enrich kids’ study skills, and nutrition and wellness. “Everybody is learning,” Camacho said.
Patterson added he has seen parents attracted to join the Catholic Church through their children’s experiences. “Your parents are more engaged when you get kids involved at a younger age.”
St. Raymond’s has drawn Joliet families closer to the Church simply because they “felt so welcomed and supported by our school and community,” O’Grady agreed.
The power of community is the ultimate differentiation from typical day care centers and public pre-schools. Non-Catholic alternatives have proliferated around Roanoke, according to Patterson, but only the school he leads can claim 126 years of engagement and experience. The attention to learning and growing that begins in pre-K3 and pre-K4 “is not a new recipe for us.”
There’s also a taste of O’Grady’s Saints book in the Catholic school mix. “You’ve got God’s presence every day, and you’re able to talk about that,” Patterson said. “We’re able to weave in some of the morals and ethics pieces that cannot be discussed in the public sector, even in pre-K.”
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*Prof. James Frabutt, on the faculty of ACE’s Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, published a report in Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice in 2013. The study, “Reaching the Youngest Hearts and Minds: Interviews with Diocesan Leaders Regarding Catholic Early Childhood Education,” concluded that “early childhood programming must be considered a strategically significant component of the Catholic educational enterprise.” Dioceses see Catholic schools evangelizing whole families, Frabutt reported. “There was a sense that helping these young hearts and minds grow in the Catholic faith was a particularly life-giving ministry, but one that also reaches deeply into parental faith development and catechesis.”