Expanding programs welcome more families into parish communities at earlier stage
Story by Reagan Scott
(SNR) - As the Joy of the Gospel campaign continues, significant changes are being made in preschools across the Diocese of Lincoln as a result of the money donated to the historic appeal.
The campaign was conducted in all parishes from August 2014 through December 2015 to address the most pressing needs of the Church. The needs supported by the funds will significantly influence the scope of the diocese’s mission long into the future. One specific part of the fund will do that in a visible way through preschool programs.
Through the Joy of the Gospel’s Flavin Fund, schools in the diocese can apply for and be awarded grant money for a number of projects.
Last year, Cathedral of the Risen Christ and Blessed Sacrament in Lincoln received funds to improve and expand their preschools, and St. John Nepomucene in Weston was given funds for its early childhood interactive programs.
This year, schools awarded money for their preschool programs included Blessed Sacrament (which received a continuation of its grant from last year), Sacred Heart and St. Mary in Lincoln, St. John the Baptist in Plattsmouth, St. Wenceslaus in Wahoo and St. John Nepomucene in Weston.
In Plattsmouth, St. John School will be able to make big changes to its preschool in the coming year.
In the past, the school had half-day preschool classes for 3-year-olds twice a week, and half-day classes for 4-year-olds three days a week.
This coming school year, with the money provided from the Flavin Fund, St. John will be able to offer full-day classes to 4-year-olds, five days a week. Three-year-olds will be able to take half-day classes three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
The money from the grant will help to pay the salary for a full-time teacher for the 4-year-olds, as well as the salary of a paraprofessional. The program will also use the money for supplies for the classroom.
These changes will allow the 4-year-old students to get a stronger academic foundation before starting kindergarten, according to Linda Monahan, principal at St. John School. She said she believes that as a result of the improved preschool program, the school may be able to draw more students to the Catholic faith.
“We want to be able to retain non-Catholic students, to have them continue on in our schools,” Monahan said. “There could be the potential for these families to look at their faith journeys and consider the Catholic faith.”
Even before the school year starts, Monahan has seen a difference in enrollment as the 4-year-old program is already full and has a waiting list, and the 3-year-old class is more than half full.
St. John will pair these changes to its preschool with another big change in the coming school year, made without the grant money. The school will begin to offer child care for school students from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the school week, to make child care more feasible for working parents, and perhaps making the choice to select St John School an easier one.
After working with a strategic planning team all of last year in order to receive the grant, Monahan said all of those involved will soon be able to see the benefits from the expanded program.
Any parent interested in enrolling their child at St. John School, whether in preschool, elementary or middle school, may call the school office at 402-296-6230.
Last year, Cathedral of the Risen Christ School was awarded grant money through the Flavin Fund. The school is on track to complete its project, a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom for its preschool students, on time and under budget. The school, which has long offered preschool programs, will be ready for its first class of Nature Explore “Eaglets” (Cathedral School’s mascot is the Eagles) Monday, Aug. 1.
Planning for the program began back in 2015 and was made possible with money raised through grants. Principal Jeremy Ekeler said the classroom wouldn’t have come together without the help of contractor Herb Reese, the work of the Knights of the Holy Eucharist, the Nebraska Nursery and Color Gardens, or the community.
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The Dimensions Educational Research Foundation based out of Lincoln was also a big player in the project, as the organization is the one that pairs with the Arbor Day Foundation to bring Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms to life.
According to Ekeler, in the new classroom students will get to go outside any chance that they get, rain or shine. They will have the opportunity to play in a natural environment and will be able to get dirty.
“It seems strange to our generation,” Ekeler said, “but in this tech-driven era it is innovative to cut kids loose in nature.”
What’s unique about the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is that it is more focused on the environment the students are in, rather than the curriculum used. Students are able to interact with nature in digging areas, sand boxes and a pizza garden (containing herbs used in making pizza), to name a few of the classroom’s many features.
Another unique element of the outdoor classroom is the fact that it will constantly evolve. Ekeler remarked that the outdoor space will be completely different in November and different again in the winter, and in the spring.
Ekeler noted that parents want to get their kids outdoors, which shows in the preschool’s enrollment for the coming school year. Enrollment in the preschool is already at its maximum capacity of 48 students, up 30 percent from last year’s preschool enrollment. For the 2018-19 academic year, Ekeler would like to have enough space for four sections, which would accommodate 60 students.
“We are sometimes attracting parents who aren’t connected to their faith, or who maybe aren’t even Catholic,” he said. “We feel that Christ is at work in this preschool.”
In the future, Ekeler would like to have summer camps in the preschool to allow other children to enjoy the space and also so they can meet new families.
Through the generosity of donors to the Joy of the Gospel campaign and the help of the Flavin Fund, these projects are possible for diocesan schools. Now, schools across the diocese will be able to impact parishioners and young children through their improved preschools, helping to draw them into their parish communities.
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