January 26, 2018

2018 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

St. Lawrence pre-K program reaches out to peripheries near and far

Teacher Heather Keeney helps Ja’Niyla McFerson learn numbers on Jan. 10 in the Kids Care pre­kindergarten program at St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Teacher Heather Keeney helps Ja’Niyla McFerson learn numbers on Jan. 10 in the Kids Care pre‑kindergarten program at St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

A clarion call of Pope Francis since his 2013 election as bishop of Rome has been for the Church to share God’s loving care and mercy with people on the peripheries of society.

St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis is responding to that call by reaching out to those in need close to home in the neighborhood that surrounds it on the northeast side of Indianapolis.

But it also follows the pope’s call by reaching out halfway around the world by inspiring and offering professional development to a pre-kindergarten school in China.

Surrounded by apartment buildings and rental properties, nearly 80 percent of the students at St. Lawrence meet the low-income requirements to qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“We’re a true mission school in this community,” said Sarah Jean Watson, St. Lawrence’s principal. “We were not always that. School choice has changed the demographic of the school quite a bit. We definitely minister to the parish and the parishioners’ children. But we’re also ministering to the whole community, the whole neighborhood.”

To help the economically challenged children in the neighborhood achieve their potential, St. Lawrence has worked hard to improve its Kids Care pre-kindergarten program.

Last fall, it became the first Catholic pre-K program attached to a parish school in the state to meet the state of Indiana’s requirements as a Level Four Paths to Quality school.

The Paths to Quality requirement calls for pre-K programs to meet standards for health and safety, environmental support for children’s learning and planned curricula. To reach level four, a pre-K program must be accredited by a national accrediting agency.

In Indiana, if a pre-K program has reached level three, it can receive vouchers through the state’s On My Way Pre-K program in counties that are eligible for it, which includes Marion County in which St. Lawrence is located.

“It’s a nice way for parents to see what every child care and pre-school has to offer,” said Kathryn Kutan, director of Kids Care of the Paths to Quality program. “They [expect] very high quality care, along with the curriculum and the materials that you have in the room.”

St. Lawrence also reaches out to the parents of its pre-K students, offering evening parenting classes in order to help form the best environment for its young students to grow and thrive.

“We’re a very family-oriented program,” Watson said. “Our pre-school parents are in the door every day. At least one staff member interacts with a parent of the child every day. We’re supporting them.”

And parents are supporting the program. Melissa Bishop is a parent of a Kids Care student and also has children in kindergarten and third grade at St. Lawrence. An occupational therapist who is currently a stay-at-home mom, Bishop volunteers in Kids Care to help the students begin to learn handwriting.

Even though she had been a student at St. Lawrence as a child, Bishop investigated other pre-K programs in the area before enrolling her children in one. She found that St. Lawrence offered a quality early childhood program to its students.

“The programs and the tools that they use to serve the parish and the community are, from my profession, what excite me,” Bishop said. “And my kids are excited to come, too.”

Bishop also appreciates the cultural diversity found at St. Lawrence School, which attracts many students from the surrounding Hispanic and African-American communities.

“It’s something to embrace,” she said. “It has a different population than when I was in school here. But as an adult, I feel that it’s something for me and my family to embrace and be a part of.”

That diversity has increased as Kids Care at St. Lawrence has developed a cooperative relationship with the Go Link Academy, a pre-K school in Shenzhen, China, just north of Hong Kong.

It began when the biological mother of a Chinese child adopted by Watson visited St. Lawrence three years ago. She was so impressed by what she saw that she worked with a partner in China to start the Go Link Academy.

Teachers from the school have since visited St. Lawrence, and Watson and Kutan have traveled to China to help the staff there with professional development.

Chinese pre-K students and their families have also visited St. Lawrence.

“That goes back to the mission of our program,” Watson said. “We’re a family-oriented program. Last year, we had a mom and a dad with us. We accept the whole family into the program. That benefits our families and their families.”

Although Watson noted that language barriers can be a challenge for visiting Chinese pre-K students, she reflected that the children share another language that brings them together.

“Our students brought them right into the fold,” Watson said. “Kids speak the language of love and acceptance more easily than adults. They took them by the hand, brought them over and incorporated them into whatever they were doing. It was really a beautiful thing to watch.”

More visitors from China will come to St. Lawrence later this school year.

The Catholic faith is embedded in the Kids Care program at St. Lawrence in the way it reaches out to people in need both near and far.

And it would seem that this is having an effect on the program’s staff.

“We’re evangelizing every day,” Kutan said. “Two of our pre-school teachers are converting this Easter and bringing their whole families in. We see it all the time. It’s just amazing. It gives me chills.”

“The things that happen in our program every day are magical,” Watson said. “To me, it’s a blessing to work in a parish and school that is willing to serve the community around them. It truly embraces who we are as Catholics. We’re universal.”
 

(For more information about St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis, including its Kids Care pre-kindergarten program, visit saintlawrence.net/school.)

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