Champaign-Urbana families have scores of preschool options, from parent cooperatives to government-funded Head Start programs to private or church-affiliated schools.
Local Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist and other congregations have long supported preschools, but one religious denomination has been noticeably absent: Catholics.
Despite their longtime emphasis on parochial education, neither Catholic school in Champaign-Urbana has had a preschool. But that could change.
Holy Cross Catholic School in Champaign is testing the market, surveying parents to see if there’s any interest in a pre-K program for 2010-11.
The idea would be to include some 4-year-olds in kindergarten classrooms, a practice used at other private preschools, said Principal Rose Costello. The 4-year-olds would attend three mornings a week until about 11:30, while kindergarteners would stay on for the full school day.
“We’re not sure we’re going to do that yet,” she said recently. “We’re considering the possibility.”
A new Catholic preschool also opened at St. Thomas Grade School in Philo this year. The 28 preschoolers attend morning classes, with separate classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds, and can stay on for the afternoon day-care program.
Principal Gwenn Roche said the decision was based on two factors: declining enrollment at the school and a need for more preschool day-care in the community. The idea was to bolster enrollment by attracting more families, who appreciate being able to take older and younger children to the same place every morning, she said.
It worked. Enrollment is now up to 110 students at St. Thomas, a 35 percent increase, and more students have registered for kindergarten next fall, said Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent at the Office of Catholic Schools in Peoria.
Sanderson said 35 of the 42 grade schools in the diocese have preschools, including St. Malachy's School in Rantoul. Now in its fourth year, the preschool there has about 30 students.
Several Champaign-Urbana moms I know explored the idea of a Catholic preschool several years ago, with no luck. Local churches said they didn’t have space or felt it would be too costly to start one.
"We never really considered it. We didn't have room," said Kathleen Scherer, principal at St. Matthew School in Champaign.
Plus, the community has quite a few established, high-quality Christian day-care centers and preschools, some of which predate the founding of St. Matthew’s in 1966, Scherer said.
Holy Cross started to reconsider last fall, when kindergarten enrollment declined. It bounced back by mid-year, but Costello won’t know for sure about next fall’s numbers until later this spring.
Potential enrollment at Holy Cross would likely be no more than 15 students, and would depend on kindergarten numbers, Costello said. The school would take kindergarten students first, then fill any remaining spots with 4-year-olds. Enrollment in the two kindergarten classrooms is limited to 22 students each.
She doesn’t think including 4-year-olds would harm the kindergarten curriculum. Both ages are still learning development skills, such as attending to a lesson, taking turns and working in small groups. The classroom would have an aide, and the kindergarteners would be in school longer, she said.
Costello surveyed Holy Cross parents earlier this year, and several expressed interest. One is Annessa Parisi, who was "devastated" to find no Catholic preschool when she moved to Champaign-Urbana 10 years ago.
Parisi sent her children to Mother's Morning Out, and taught there for 10 years, but would still like to see a Catholic option. Her children had attended a Catholic preschool in Pekin, and she missed it here.
Enrollment for 2010-11 is under way for most local preschools. Anyone interested in the Catholic preschool can contact Holy Cross at 356-9521.
About the writer
A proud East St. Louis native, I’m one of those Champaign-Urbana short-timers who stayed — 23 years and counting. I've covered schools, local government, higher education and social services at The News-Gazette (the perfect job — I'm paid to be nosy). But my best job — most days, at least — is being a mom. I believe in Santa, a daily dose of chocolate, and the power of humor to get us through almost anything.
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