Envisioning the Future of Catholic Early Childhood Education

Article excerpt

Schools Play an Important Role in Providing duality Early Childhood Education to Traditionally Marginalized Children

A hallmark of education is the conviction that parents are the primary educators of their children. Elementary and secondary Catholic school staffs recognize that while schools are vital, what they provide is secondary to what happens in the family.

However, an important corollary to this frequently is ignored: the importance of early childhood education. Formal early childhood education is a vital component to long-term success in academics and in life. This is especially the case for children placed at risk by poverty, race and ethnicity, home language and disability. Catholic schools rightly have affirmed the role of parents and caregivers, but often have failed to recognize the important role that our schools can play in providing quality early childhood education to traditionally marginalized children.

Three panelists at the 2006 NCEA convention in Atlanta provided powerful examples of how Catholic early childhood programs can better meet this need. This article presents an overview of three programs, summarizes key lessons for fellow Catholic school leaders and invites Catholic school practitioners to envision a bold future for Catholic early childhood education.

Three Exemplars of Catholic Early Childhood Education

Cardinal Bernardin Early Childhood Center

The Cardinal Bernardin Early Childhood Center (CBECC) is a regional archdiocesan school in Chicago offering a variety of educational opportunities for infants, toddlers and children up to 9 years old in both Montessori and regular classrooms. By opening two campuses in 1998 in the shells of former Catholic elementary schools, the school made a radical commitment to fostering a diverse student body from its inception. The promotional materials on the school's Web page describe this commitment:

No child is turned away. We provide financial assistance for those who are unable to afford tuition and support the inclusion of children with special needs. In fact, our students are a very culturally and economically diverse group of children, and our educational programs serve to support the rich cultural, ethnic and economic diversity of our students and families.

Augmenting tuition revenues with grants and private donations, CBECC is able to open its doors to students whose families cannot afford tuition. Through alliances with a local nonprofit organization as well as public schools, CBECC is able to provide both service delivery and staff training so that students with a wide range of disabilities as well as linguistic home lives are included in the school community.

The philosophy of the school, which emphasizes working closely with families, recognizes that all children have "special needs," regardless of whether these are formally labeled (e.g., autism or Down syndrome) or just circumstances that challenge children (e.g., dealing with the death of a parent). In short, CBECC provides quality early childhood services to children and their families in the spirit of Cardinal Bernardin, who stated: "Inclusion begins in our hearts. It begins with affirmation. We should open our hearts to one another and recognize the strengths of every person.... When we open our hearts and our community to the gifts each person brings, we are all strengthened."

St. Mary's Child Center

St. Mary's Child Center (SMCC) in Indianapolis serves nearly 200 students from ages 3 to 5. The center was selected as a SPICE (Selected Programs for Improving Catholic Education) model program in 2004, for helping young children who are at great risk for a wide range of social, emotional, economic and environmental problems and whose needs are not being met adequately by any other private or public service. As an early intervention center, SMCC serves children who have suffered from poverty, neglect, abuse, violence, separation from parents and learning disabilities. …