By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 23, 2006
The 2-year-olds are in the movement room at St. Thomas Aquinas Church Preschool. Their laughter echoes throughout the spacious room as their teachers toss small plastic balls onto the multicolored parachute that the children are holding.
As a teacher counts down to “go time,” the children twitch with anticipation. As soon as they hear the word “Go!” they squeal with delight, moving their arms up and down rapidly, the balls bouncing up and down in the parachute and landing on the floor.
Kathy Cicio, director of St. Thomas’s preschool, watches nearby with a smile.
“I mean, how could you not want to come to work in the morning when you see this?” she laughs.
Cicio has been on staff in the STA preschool since 1997 and has been the director since 2000. The program serves approximately 165 children ages 2 to 4 and some young 5-year-olds. A variety of two-, three-, four- and five-day classes are offered.
Cicio has taught school in three states and said she has been “blessed to teach in a wide spectrum” of settings, including third grade and kindergarten. But it was when she began working with the very young students that she found her calling.
“I just love their enthusiasm, and I love how much they teach me,” she said. “I try to be an active part of each family, and I greet them at the door in the mornings.”
Terry Graham, coordinator for the archdiocesan Office of Parish-Based Early Childhood Programs, said that Cicio is “one of our most visible directors. She’s never just sitting in the office.”
Indeed as Cicio walks throughout the halls of STA, popping her head into classrooms, the students eagerly tell her what they are learning.
“I made a Valentine for my mommy,” one little boy tells Cicio.
“Today is opposite day,” says another. “See, my clothes are on inside out!”
“Mrs. Cicio, did you see my new lunchbox?” asks a third.
Cicio is proud to lead the STA program, one of nearly 30 in the archdiocese, with additional programs in various stages of planning.
Cicio said that though the majority of her students are Catholic, non-Catholic children are also a part of the preschool.
“This is a dream come true. To start the day with prayer is just fantastic. It’s a big part of why I wanted to work here,” she said. “It makes the childcare climate feel somehow different. And for our non-Catholic families, we like being able to show what our Catholic faith is all about.”
Graham said that there is a “religious component” in all of the archdiocesan early childhood programs, whether in the form of service projects or Bible stories.
“The Catholic part is what makes our programs different from (other childcare centers and preschools),” she said.
Graham is the first person in her position, which was created two years ago to provide consistency and resources among the many archdiocesan programs.
Graham, who holds a master’s degree in early childhood education, taught kindergarten for five years and preschool for over 16 years. She also served as the curriculum specialist for Fulton County Schools for five years. As the director of the program, she oversees all 29 of the archdiocesan early childhood programs, which she said serve over 2,000 children.
Graham’s main task was to create consistency among the various parish programs, which include four-hour half-day preschool programs, extended care, which includes before or after school care, and full parish daycares. She has written eight teacher resource manuals in her career and has a true insight into the training and resources needed in early childhood programs.
“All of the directors have been so supportive of me,” Graham said. “I wanted to give these guys the support they needed to grow quality programs. Even though I’ve made some changes, they’ve adapted really well.”
One of the changes Graham made is that all directors must be Catholic and must have a degree. She has also worked to create safe environments according to archdiocesan guidelines.
“I want to make sure we have a safe, spiritual, nurturing environment for these children. My job is always in progress,” she said.
Cicio said it’s helpful to have the resources of the other teachers and directors throughout the archdiocese.
“What Terry has done is created this network so that the other directors are not just names on a paper,” she said, adding that the directors now meet quarterly to discuss ideas. “These are other people working in the field, and they can provide a lot of support.”
To further the support among parishes, Graham has established a mentor program, pairing up veteran early childhood program directors with new directors.
“It’s really helpful because these directors can get all the information from my office, but the mentors are in the fields, working with children and running the programs,” Graham said. “It provides experience and a helping hand to the newer directors.”
Several parishes are in the process of developing early childhood programs, including All Saints Church, Dunwoody, and Prince of Peace Church in Buford. In addition, St. Brigid Church in Alpharetta recently became the first preschool in the archdiocese to receive its accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The programs at Transfiguration Church in Marietta and Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain have also gone through the accreditation process and are awaiting the results of their labor.
“They have worked extremely hard, and we hope this might inspire other schools to seek accreditation,” Graham said.
To earn NAEYC’s accreditation, a program conducts a self-study to determine how well it meets the standards. After necessary improvements are made, the program is observed by independent, professional validators, and then reviewed by a national panel. Programs are accredited by NAEYC for a five-year period.
“It is the highest benchmark standard we can attain,” Graham said, adding that the non-accredited schools also follow NAEYC guidelines.
Mara Martin has been the director of the preschool program at St. James Church in McDonough for five years. She said that the preschool has an added benefit for the parish.
“It really brings young parents to the church,” she said. “Because we’re here, the parents are more likely to participate in parish life.”
Davis said her favorite part of her job is “seeing the smiles on the children’s faces,” and said that having Graham in her position has affirmed the program at St. James.
“Having Terry there gives us guidelines, but the best thing for us is knowing that we have been doing things the right way all along.”
Graham said that her job is “very rewarding” and hopes to continue to expand on a shared vision with the directors, as well as with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
“My job is a perfect combination of working with wonderful adults who really care about children and working with children because they’re really the reason we’re all here doing what we’re doing. My goal is just to provide quality programs—both educational and spiritual.”
For more information about archdiocesan parish-based early childhood programs, visit www.archatl.com/offices/pbecp/.