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Expanding Pre-K Options Serves Dual Purpose for Catholic Schools

Written by William Schmitt on Tuesday, 29 September 2015.

preschoolbig copyYou 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.” 

_ _ _ _

*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.”

St. Leander School Partners with Catholic School Advantage and ENL Program to Better Serve Latino Students

on Friday, 29 August 2014.


When Lynne Mullen, Principal of St. Leander School in the Diocese of Oakland, received the invitation to attend the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) in 2012, she saw it as the perfect opportunity to respond to her parish community's changing demographics. Having observed the growing number of Latino families at the Spanish Masses and in the parish religious education programs, she was eager to reach out to this growing population and make Catholic education a more visible and viable option for Latino families in the community.

The LEI provided just the tools she needed to begin this important outreach. After implementing a number of strategies learned at the LEI, including meeting with prospective families after the Spanish Masses, promoting the school from the pulpit, personally walking families through the enrollment process and its accompanying paperwork, and making all scholarship applications and information available in Spanish, Mullen and her staff were able to increase the Latino enrollment at St. Leander by 43 percent the following year.

Mullen returned to Notre Dame the summer after attending the LEI to further develop St. Leander's capacity to serve the growing number of Latino families at the school, particularly those whose primary language is not English. She participated in the English as a New Language Program (ENL), where she learned how to support the academic, linguistic, and cultural needs of the Latino students and families in her school. "I have learned strategic ways to help our parents connect more meaningfully to our school and support their children's education," Mullen said. "The information I learned in my classes has helped our faculty more effectively design curriculum to assess and instruct our language learners. Our partnership with the University of Notre Dame has truly been an integral part of our Latino Enrollment Plan."

ENL Grad Impacts the Cristo Rey Network

on Thursday, 21 February 2013.

SpotlightStory02222013When Corinne Viglietta (pictured here, third from left) graduated from Notre Dame, she had no idea she would one day be a high school teacher, let alone call herself part of the ACE and Cristo Rey families.

After studying literature in graduate school, she went on to teach English in France. Upon returning to the United States, she landed at an innovative Catholic high school, Don Bosco Cristo Rey in Washington, D.C. Her school is founded on the Cristo Rey model, which gives low-income students the chance to work in corporate jobs to finance their college-prep tuition.

Accustomed to working with college students, Corinne found teaching high school juniors—many of whom were English language learners—an enormous challenge. She explains, "I knew I needed a stronger background in linguistics and more classroom strategies, but I didn't know where to look. I was an English nerd. I had never taken an education class in my life."

Corinne learned about ACE's English as a New Language (ENL) program, which trains teachers to educate linguistically diverse student populations, and decided to apply. The ENL program helped Corinne teach challenging works by Shakespeare and Woolf to non-native readers and build a repertoire of developmentally appropriate strategies for teaching academic writing.

Through ENL, Corinne also learned to strengthen community partnerships, especially those with universities, museums, and student families. Recently, she even started a student-staffed writing center at her school, where most of the peer tutors are English language learners. "It's a friendly, supportive space for young writers," she says. "Students run the show. Differences are celebrated. Everyone's welcome."

The ENL program introduced her to the vibrancy of ACE's mission and shaped the way she taught all of her students, not just those who spoke another language at home. It also opened many doors for her professionally. After completing the program in 2011, Corinne has returned to Notre Dame for the past two summers to help coordinate the summer component of ENL. She also assists a former ENL professor with her online course.

"ENL has nurtured my vocation as a teacher," Corinne says. "I'm so grateful to ENL and to ACE for helping me develop my passion for language and literature and reminding me of my call to support the most vulnerable among us."

In the Spotlight: Bethany Berg

on Friday, 06 July 2012.

It didn't take long for this first year teacher in Washington, DC, to discover the importance of English language development and its impact on student learning. By springtime, Bethany Berg says, "I already knew I needed more to support my students," many of whom were English language learners.

But where to find it? Through a colleague, Bethany discovered ACE's English as a New Language (ENL) program. She enrolled, spending two summer weeks of intensive study on Notre Dame's campus, then taking a year of on-line courses. Of the summer, she says, "In only two weeks, I walked away with not only a better understanding of what culturally and linguistically diverse students need in the classroom to find success, but also an overwhelming sense of support from the faculty and the entire cohort."

In addition, she continues, "My eyes were opened to an overwhelming need growing in schools across the country, which is the need to adequately educate the diverse student populations that fill our classrooms."

According to Bethany, the ENL program is well designed to do just that, calling the model perfect for Catholic schools. At a time when resources are scarce, when teachers, as Bethany says, "do more with less," ACE's ENL program trains them to use strategies that support the diverse learners in their classrooms. What's more, Bethany says, "It helps teachers understand that...answers will not come quickly and the work will not be easy."

Since her time in the ENL program, Bethany has begun a master's program in bilingual special education at George Washington University. She teaches at a Catholic school in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In the Spotlight: Dane Whipple

on Friday, 13 April 2012.

DaneWhipple Small

You've heard of a "Double Domer." Well, Michigan native Dane Whipple is becoming what might be considered a "Double ACEr." Last year he completed his first certification with ACE in English as a New Language (ENL); now he is well on his way toward earning his second certification with ACE in Teaching Exceptional Children (TEC).

This long-time Notre Dame fan graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint, and taught in Flint-area Catholic schools until, as he says, "the General Motors strike approached and the economy took a downturn." He relocated to San Diego, where he continued teaching and found his way to ACE.

"My motivation to join the ACE TEC program," he says, "was based on my experience in the ENL program. I learned so much [there] and met so many wonderful people that, when this second program was offered, I decided to pursue it." Dane found that teaching English as a new language truly helped struggling students—his ultimate goal. So he knew that the TEC program would equally support students with mild to moderate disabilities.

What he may not have expected is the change these programs have wrought in him. Even as he has established his school's Student Study Team, a resource for parents and students to help students achieve success; and even as he has introduced Quizlet, a website that helps students make study flashcards for their classes, Dane attests to his own growth in body, mind and spirit. He speaks of his increasing empathy for students who struggle, his openness to differentiated instruction, and the value of daily mass and other resources offered during summertime training.

Just as this teacher calls his ACE experience "a blessing," so ACE calls him, ever grateful for the thought and commitment he and others like him bring to our Catholic schools.

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