Gone are the days when Catholic schools simply ran notices in the parish bulletin each spring, and new families showed up for kindergarten in the fall. Now, young families are making school decisions earlier, sometimes while their kids are still in diapers.
That’s why the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence (CSCOE) is dedicated to providing early-childhood grants, which help schools engage with families earlier and, ultimately, bring more children to Christ. Today, 66 of 79 schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have early-childhood programs. But CSCOE’s mission is to help all schools that want to start or expand early-childhood offerings.
CSCOE’s early-childhood efforts are led by consultants Janet Miller and Kassy Kinney. Miller helps schools evaluate their existing programs and facilities. Kinney, who runs the highly regarded preschool at Highland Catholic School in St. Paul, provides training and brings early-childhood directors together to collaborate.
Two schools, St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, have taken advantage of CSCOE’s resources to expand and improve their programs. St. Alphonsus already had one mixed-age classroom and wanted to add a toddler room.
“I knew we had a good pre-K program; I just wanted to know what we could do to make it better,” said Principal Kari Staples.
After getting Miller’s evaluation, Staples was able to put together a realistic plan. Starting in September, St. Alphonsus will have a toddler classroom, a classroom for 3- and 4-year-olds; and a Kinderstart program for 4- and 5-year-olds. What’s more, she can provide flexible scheduling options to make parents’ lives easier.
In 2014, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School Principal Tim Sullivan read an archdiocesan study that warned of a drop in enrollment if the school maintained the status quo. Their preschool offered morning or afternoon classes and only on certain days, but Sullivan knew he had room to expand. So with generous grants from CSCOE and the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, Sullivan and his preschool director, Barbara Laumeyer, added full- and extended-day programs. They now provide preschool tuition assistance as well.
“The last thing we ever want to do is turn away a family based on demonstrated financial need,” he said.
In one year, enrollment in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s preschool program has nearly doubled — from 42 to 73 students.
Staples and Sullivan both hope that a bigger preschool cohort will translate to a bigger K–8 population, but, more importantly, they know that bringing more children to Catholic preschools means readying more kids for kindergarten, welcoming more families into their communities and bringing more children to the Catholic faith.