Diocesan preschools help young children grow in faith and a love of learning
ARLINGTON — Across the Diocese of Fort Worth, parishes offering preschool programs are serving their communities by helping their youngest parishioners grow in faith and in a love of learning.
“What we’re doing is serving our families,” said Isabel White, director of St. Vincent’s Academy at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Arlington. “They’re looking for childcare and quality programs. It allows families an opportunity to have their child in a safe place with a great faculty and be loved and cared for by people who also love God.”
St. Vincent Academy offers a preschool program on Tuesdays and Thursdays for children ages 2-6, with extra enrichment classes on Mondays and Wednesdays that offer opportunities in science, art, math and more. White said that many homeschooling families take advantage of the enrichment classes. Close to 60 students attend one or more days a week.
A recent “Wild Wednesday” animal-focused enrichment class featured an up-close look at tarantulas.
“We work hard to build them up in developmentally appropriate ways to help them get ready for kindergarten,” White said. “We want students to understand that learning is fun.”
St. Catherine of Siena’s parish preschool in Carrollton currently serves about 45 students, with room for twice that many. Preschool numbers are down compared to before the pandemic. St. Catherine offers a Mom’s Day Out option for 2- and 3-year-olds and preschool for ages 3 to 5.
Susan Sasso, St. Catherine’s preschool director, said, “We want it to be a happy environment where kids want to come to school and want to learn, where they feel good about themselves.”
At St. Michael’s Academy in Bedford, current enrollment is around 60, with room for 90, and serves children ages 12 months to 5 years on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Director Alyssa Roper said, “We believe we are ministering to our families through the preschool, both children and parents.”
All three parishes have offered programs for young children for longer than 25 years, evolving out of play-based Mom’s Day Out (still an option for younger students at St. Catherine’s and St. Michael’s) to a preschool that helps kids get ready for the rigors of kindergarten.
Roper said, “We have many people who come back and say they went to preschool here, and now they’re bringing their children.”
Helping children grow in faith
One of the reasons parents favor diocesan preschools is to help their children grow in the Catholic faith.
White said that St. Vincent Academy uses a Montessori-based religious education called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which features an atrium that is a special place for children to develop a relationship with God.
“It’s a hands-on religious education program designed to meet children where they are,” White said.
Children learn different elements of liturgy, like what various liturgical colors and movements mean.
At St. Catherine’s, students attend chapel and have materials to take home to parents about a special song, story, and prayer on a monthly theme related to Catholic doctrine, Sasso said. Themes include families and worship, animals and Noah’s ark, Jesus’ birthday and the Nativity.
Roper said that St. Michael’s Academy features the God Made Me Catechist Manual, which helps children learn about the Catholic faith. They attend chapel and sing Bible songs, celebrate religious holidays, and pray before meals and say the “Our Father” before circle time.
Fostering a love of learning
St. Michael’s curriculum also includes lessons in Spanish, American Sign Language, music and art, and learning the alphabet, shapes, and colors, Roper said.
“We want to provide a nurturing place where children can grow in knowledge and faith in a loving environment,” she said.
Sasso said that St. Catherine’s helps kids “learn by doing.” They practice science, math and language arts in hands-on ways that help children learn basic concepts. They also offer a “Handwriting Without Tears” program that works on the fine motor skills children need to form letters.
Teachers work with children both one-on-one and in small groups.
“Every child works on their own level,” Sasso said. “If they’re ready to do more, we let them do more. If not, we don’t pressure them.”
St. Vincent Academy also focuses on meeting each child’s individual learning needs. They work on fine and gross motor skills like cutting with scissors, gluing, and using a pencil. White said that kids start by learning colors and a small set of numbers, then increasing to more numbers and adding letters and phonics.
“Our goal is we may only have them two days a week, but we want them to be ready for kindergarten,” White said.
Lessons are intentionally low tech, with no computers or iPads. Instead, kids will make numbers or letters with a variety of materials, from sand and shaving cream to Legos.
Sandi Miller, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul and mom to a current and former student, said her older son was well prepared for kindergarten after St. Vincent’s Academy, and her younger son is thriving there.
“They’re different learners, and the teachers loved each of them in the way they needed to be loved and supported,” Miller said.
She also was impressed with how much her children have learned about art and science, and how lessons “helped them find Jesus” in everyday life.