By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 29, 2015
NEWNAN—The students of St. Mary Magdalene Church’s new preschool are not only learning the skills needed to succeed in kindergarten but also about faith through the example of Christ.
The Newnan parish opened its preschool in August for children ages 2 to 4, following a survey of the need for such a program in 2014.
The preschool director, Gina DeGennaro, said creation of the preschool was the hope of the church’s pastor, Father Terry Crone
“It was definitely his vision,” said DeGennaro. “We want to bring children closer to God.”
The preschool has 10 students with a pre-kindergarten class and a combined class for 2- and 3-year-olds. There are two teachers and one teacher’s aide. The class day is from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The children are learning to recognize letters and to follow instruction, creating beautiful works of art, and developing friendships with one another. A special area in the hallway is set aside for children, teachers and parents to spend time in prayer. Petitions or prayer needs are placed in a box next to the kneeler.
“Faith formation is a lifelong process. Our preschool adds another dimension to our ability to reach not only the children, but also their parents, in new ways,” said Father Crone in an email. “It helps to build community among the families of our children, and it inspires other members of the parish as they walk down the hall and see life and growth from week to week.”
Support from other parish preschools, archdiocese
When DeGennaro, an educator for 20 years, came on board as director she wondered if there would be someone she could bounce ideas off of.
She has found support to be plentiful from fellow preschool directors and the community. Directors of the archdiocese’s 30 other parish preschools have provided resources and needed items, including books.
“People have showered me. I really think it’s a God thing,” said DeGennaro.
Eagle Scout Colin Clayton installed a perimeter for the preschool playground and distributed rubber mulch around the equipment. Parishioners have volunteered to be mystery readers and lent time in other ways.
DeGennaro, who loves bargain hunting, found many gently used items at yard sales, and a new laminator at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
Terry Graham is director of parish preschools for the archdiocese, the office that supports, monitors, and works to enhance the quality of the programs. She guides new directors during the process of creating a program.
“I take them through it. Is it going to be sensible? Where are you going to put this? I sit in on interviews,” explained Graham about issues that arise.
Graham said each new director has a mentor, and Mary Jo Nichols of the Holy Family Church Preschool in Marietta is fulfilling that advisory role for DeGennaro.
The Office of Parish Preschools also holds an annual Summer Education Institute, providing workshops for preschool staff members.
DeGennaro always wanted to be an educator. Inspired by one of her own teachers in New York, she would play school. DeGennaro would line up stuffed animals turned pupils in front of a chalkboard her parents bought.
“Mrs. Luposello was my role model. It’s just what’s natural to me,” she said about teaching.
Now DeGennaro is enjoying combining her career in education with the business side of running a preschool.
Taking advantage of nearby library
DeGennaro is joined by pre-kindergarten teacher Amy Rivard and 2- and 3-year-old teacher Laura Rodgers, in addition to aide Tami Gokey. All bring valuable experience to St. Mary Magdalene.
“My first and foremost thing is to support them,” said DeGennaro. “They are jewels. They are devoted. I couldn’t have asked for more positive outlooks. Each of them has such a special talent.”
The students are taking part in active learning from cooking to finding out about estimation by comparing sizes of pumpkins. All lessons and projects fit into the STREAM or Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics curriculum.
St. Mary Magdalene Church is situated next door to one of Coweta County’s public library branches and a fire station. The students take a mini-field trip each Wednesday to the library for story time. Firefighters have visited to teach the children about safety and provide a close-up look at a fire truck and gear.
“We’re very hands on,” said DeGennaro.
Materials in sensory bins are changed out for different playtime experiences and for autumn feature a turf lining, silk leaves from the dollar store and a tiny rake.
The children presented songs for a parish Sept. 11 service, observed a turtle eating, participated in a blessing of the stuffed animals, and have offered flowers in honor of Our Lady.
St. Mary Magdalene Preschool joined the Fayette County Preschool Director’s Alliance and splits the cost of special events such as puppet shows with nearby Cornerstone Methodist.
Another goal of DeGennaro’s is to provide opportunities for parents to connect.
“We’re trying to get the families to be one family,” she said. The mothers have enjoyed a paint night at a local art studio, and families all took part in a back-to-school dinner.
“They’re learning that Jesus loves them”
Amelia Crine, mother of preschool student Evangeline Crine, said her family recently moved to Newnan from Smyrna. Meeting others has been important as the Crines plan to raise their growing family in Newnan.
“That’s the one thing. We wanted to get to know parents,” said Crine. “If you create a family, so to speak, they’re going to want to put more into the school,” said Crine.
Evangeline, one of just three students in the pre-K class, is getting a lot of individual attention.
Crine said her daughter is already learning math concepts through patterning and knows several sight words.
“I’m amazed they can do so much at 4,” said Crine. “I’m so pleased. She loves going. It’s such a great environment.”
Learning to pray before meals has become engrained in Evangeline, who won’t take a bite at home with out thanking God first.
“They’re learning that Jesus loves them. She’s telling me this,” said Crine.
As a parent, Crine said receiving a class newsletter from Rivard is very helpful. If she’s unsure how a project fits into STREAM, the letter explains it.
Rivard, a former elementary teacher, knows what skills students will need to be prepared for the next school year.
Crine, a parishioner at St. Mary Magdalene, said Father Crone wants the school to be top-notch so it can attract new families.
She never expected a start-up preschool to have so many nice, new materials.
“I’m very thankful he’s invested so much in it,” said Crine.
While Crine loves the teacher-student ratio, she also hopes the program will grow and wants to be part of sharing the news about it.
“I just want to scream it from rooftops,” said Crine.
DeGennaro believes that it’s only a matter of time before area parents learn about what the preschool has to offer.
“In time, people will start to see the positiveness of the program. We have to put it in Jesus’ hands,” she said.
One of DeGennaro’s favorite things is to sit at her desk, across the hall from the classrooms, and listen to the students chatter back and forth with their teachers.
“It’s the magic years. It’s a happy place,” she said.
For more on St. Mary Magdalene preschool, contact Gina DeGennaro at email@example.com, visit www.smmcatholic.org/parish-preschool or on Facebook.