By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 17, 2009
Take a few giant crayons, a child’s eye-level perspective of the Stations of the Cross and dozens of ways to inspire budding Rembrandts, scientists and future musical geniuses.
Mix in hundreds of preschool teachers and directors eager to get their new year started.
That’s the winning recipe for the annual Archdiocesan Summer Institute for Parish-Based Early Childhood Programs.
More than 300 preschool directors and teachers, representing some 30 preschools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta from LaGrange to Flowery Branch, gathered on a sunny Saturday morning Aug. 15 at host parish St. Ann’s in Marietta.
As teachers of toddlers to 4-year-olds, they were seeking fresh advice and educational credits from instructors, as well as a chance to share ideas with each other. With workshops ranging from “A Million $$$ Classroom on a Dollar Store Budget,” to ways to incorporate Catholic teaching in the preschool classrooms, to cultivating parents as partners, the day provided creative inspiration and educational credits.
The event drew teachers like Sheridan Tischendorf, who once held jobs in fleet management and real estate. Now she’s teaching 2-year-olds in St. Ann’s early childhood program.
“I enjoy being active and not sitting down,” Tischendorf said, when she related her typical day with the toddlers.
Kelly Niswonger used to teach middle school students; now she’s assistant director of St. Joseph’s fledgling preschool program in Marietta. Although she said she enjoyed her middle school teaching years, she had forgotten how wonderful it was to see the discovery process of a young child.
“To experience children learning something for the first time … it’s indescribable … it’s priceless,” she said enthusiastically.
The archdiocese’s early childhood program began five years ago as a way to help connect and support teachers of existing early childhood programs and help build up new programs, said Terry Graham, coordinator of the office of parish-based early childhood programs. Graham estimated that there are now more than 2,000 children who are enrolled in 32 parish preschool programs throughout the archdiocese.
The size of the programs varies, with almost 300 students and more than 40 teachers at St. Catherine of Siena in Kennesaw, to new programs like that of St. Joseph’s in Marietta, with 26 children and a team-teaching approach that flips days between teaching 2- and 3-year-olds to 4-year-olds in the church nursery. This year, St Thomas the Apostle in Smyrna opened a new preschool, while St. Patrick in Norcross and St. Ann vie for the oldest programs in the archdiocese, Graham said.
Separate from parish religious education, the early childhood preschools have grown as a result of parents and pastors looking for ways to add life to the parish, to bring in new people, and to use space that was not being used during the week, Graham said.
But prior to the formation of the office five years ago, there were few connections between programs, teachers and directors, and no standard monitoring of safety and health, Graham said.
Now new directors are matched with “those who have been running programs for awhile,” she said. The more seasoned directors help mentor the new directors.
“I feel like we’re more involved when we share ideas with other teachers and find out how they do things,” said Kristen Hall, assistant director of Transfiguration’s preschool program in Marietta.
The day’s activities ended in early afternoon with an inspirational closing by guest priest Father Ricardo Bailey, who told the group, “the gifts that you are passing on is a ministry and a calling. You are serving an important part of the body of Christ. … You all are on the front lines and in the trenches … making God’s kingdom relevant and real.”
Patrice Blatt, an assistant teacher in the early childhood program at St. George in Newnan, summed up many of the attendees’ feelings.
“I don’t think of this as a job. It’s a blessing. And there’s never a dull moment.”