Joy radiated through St. Raphael School in the San Francisco Archdiocese this week, as it celebrated the 10th anniversary of its successful pre-school. The anniversary reflected a growing pattern in Catholic education in California, the expansion of learning opportunities for children prior to kindergarten, generally termed early childhood education.
Sister Joan Hanna, OP, began and still directs the St. Raphael program, serving 35 children between the ages of 3 and 5. Over a decade it has helped the 257 children “to become competent, confident and successful in kindergarten.” In a community of wide economic and language backgrounds it has helped all children to be ready for school.
Twelve years ago the Archdiocese had a half dozen before-kindergarten programs in its schools. Today 23 programs operate in the three-county area that comprise the Archdiocese (San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties.)
“Clearly the demand is there,” says Maureen Huntington, superintendent for the Archdiocese. “The parents are looking for a really good experience for their children. There is real collaboration between the schools and the families.”
The programs develop pre-reading and pre-math skills and strengthen socialization skills needed for success in school. She adds that the programs also are important for instilling the Catholic faith in children.
The pre-school programs are especially important for children in families where English is not the primary language. “It gives them an opportunity to be in an environment that is (English) language-rich; their language gain is huge!”
Throughout California several hundred Catholic before-kindergarten programs now are available. Some are part of an elementary school; others are operated directly by parishes. The Los Angeles archdiocese alone offers 85 such programs.
A typical program is offered at St. Peter Martyr parish in Contra Costa County. For 100 years the Pittsburg parish has met the needs of waves of immigrants, beginning with Italians who migrated to work in coal mines and steel mills. Today Hispanics are its largest immigrant group.
St. Peter Martyr’s pre-kindergarten program is especially valuable for children who grow up in a home where English is not the main language.
Principal Joseph Siino points out that a child growing up in a non-English speaking home faces tougher challenges in kindergarten. The pre-K program “prepares them not only academically but also socially to be part of an education program.” It improves their competence, putting them on a stronger footing for kindergarten.
Superintendent Huntington emphasizes that Catholic pre-school programs give all children basic skills they will need once they enter the formal education system. For the youngest children a key part is basic socialization skills, learning how to work with others in a classroom environment. As they get closer to formal kindergarten children start to learn numbers and letters.
The Catholic before-kindergarten programs have several forms. Some begin for children as young as 2 years and 9 months, the threshold for pre-schools under California law. Others start with children who are at least 4 years old and deliver more formal pre-kindergarten programs. In each the structure is adapted to the age and learning levels of the child.
“We are able to meet the needs by age or development level,” says St. Raphael’s Sister Hanna. With the youngest children “we work to build self-esteem and strength of character. We help them express themselves, to listen and to share.”
As children advance programs are more focused on reading and math readiness.
Few can reach as early into life at St. Patrick’s school in Rodeo (Oakland diocese). It operates an elementary school and has a pre-school for children beginning at 2 years 9 months.
It recognized a need that working parish families have for good infant care. Already supporting a K-8 school and a pre-school, two years ago the parish opened a day care program for newborns. When it opened, Principal Kelly Stevens quoted pastor Fr. Larry Young saying -- “Mom can have the baby, bring it to St. Pat’s and stay through eighth-grade graduation!”
Few parish programs can offer quite that level of service, but today more and more Catholic parishes and schools are providing rich service to families and their young children long before they are old enough to enter kindergarten.