Preschool opens in Metamora, while program grows at Holy Cross, Champaign

These preschoolers at Holy Cross in Champaign already know that when Father Dave Sajdak, SDB, pastor, asks, "What time is it?" their response should be "Time for God!" (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

CHAMPAIGN — Holding 3-year-old Kevin tightly, Melissa Anfield smiled. Her husband Tony Markiewicz did the same and then their son was gone as he went to explore what the new preschool building at Holy Cross School had to offer on the first day of classes.

“We’ve just been waiting until he was old enough to come,” Anfield said, noting that Kevin had been fine at day care so they thought it was time to take the next step.

Three-year-old Kevin Markiewicz gets some loving support from his mother, Melissa Anfield, as she prepares to leave him with the teachers at the new preschool building at Holy Cross in Champaign on Aug. 17. Waiting to offer a hug on the first day of school is Kevin's father, Tony Markiewicz. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Three-year-old Kevin Markiewicz gets some loving support from his mother, Melissa Anfield, as she prepares to leave him with the teachers at the new preschool building at Holy Cross in Champaign on Aug. 17. Waiting to offer a hug on the first day of school is Kevin’s father, Tony Markiewicz. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“He’s a smart little dude — he likes to be challenged,” she told The Catholic Post. “He had fun at the open house.”

Kevin had plenty of company.

The preschool that started with 17 students two years ago grew to 50 last year and now enrolls 60 children, according to Christine Ellis, principal.

The new building accommodates two sections of 3-year-olds and one pre-kindergarten section. There is another pre-kindergarten section in the school itself.

Having the new preschool building means more than a healthy boost in enrollment, however.

“It means we have space to help more families,” said lead teacher Robin Rentschler.

“In our school building, with our growth, we didn’t have as much space. As a matter of fact, we wish we had more space because there are more families that want to be part of our program,” she said.

Father Dave Sajdak, SDB, pastor, acknowledges that people have asked him if he greenlighted the preschool to bring in more money for Holy Cross School or to increase enrollment. While the school needs to be financially viable and a more robust enrollment never hurts, he had an even better reason for supporting the preschool.

“There seems to be a need,” Father Dave said simply. “This year we have 60, plus a waiting list. Obviously there’s a need for a preschool in this area. We’re meeting the children’s needs and the parents’ needs.”

Ultimately, preschools serve the great commission Jesus gave his disciples, too.

TOUCHING LIVES

“It’s all about evangelization,” said Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Peoria.

“We want to share the Gospel with as many children and families as possible,” he told the Post. “When we’re marketing our schools and building enrollment, what we’re trying to do is touch more lives and bring Jesus to greater numbers of people across the diocese.”

Catholic schools across central Illinois are in a better position to do that now than ever before, posting the first increase in enrollment in a decade last year. The driving factor behind that growth was the preschool programs, which are available in all but three of the diocese’s elementary schools.

Dana Scaff's first lesson in taking attendance at Holy Cross Preschool in Champaign is off to a good start as Teagan Merz raises her hand and says, "Present!" Mahi Patel (left) and Rapheal Brigoli (right) wait eagerly for their turn. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Dana Scaff’s first lesson in taking attendance at Holy Cross Preschool in Champaign is off to a good start as Teagan Merz raises her hand and says, “Present!” Mahi Patel (left) and Rapheal Brigoli (right) wait eagerly for their turn. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“We’ve had tremendous growth,” Sanderson said. “In the last five years, our preschool enrollment has increased from 1,250 students to 1,506 students. That’s more than 20 percent growth.”

He expects that to go up with the addition of the preschool building at Holy Cross in Champaign and a new preschool at St. Mary in Metamora, which opened in the former convent with 21 children on Aug. 22.

“We’ve been trying to get it going for about three years,” said Jim Dansart, principal at St. Mary School. “The first year I got here they had dropped preschool because it was losing financially.”

This year, with the blessing of the Diocese of Peoria and Father Greg Jozefiak, pastor, Dansart went ahead and watched with gratitude as the parish and school community responded. The annual fundraiser for the school brought in $100,000 for the preschool and the principal worked on the renovations himself with a group of volunteers.

NEW LIFE IN METAMORA

“The Catholic community is just tickled to have the preschool back,” Dansart said.

Lead teacher Katie Bond is a former student of his from Metamora High School and her assistant, Melissa Durbin, is a mother of two St. Mary students. Both have degrees in early childhood education.

As with Holy Cross and several of the other preschool programs in the diocese, St. Mary is using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as its religious education component. Based on Montessori principles, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd strives to give children an opportunity to have a profound experience of the person of Jesus.

Dansart said St. Mary’s littlest students have brought new life to the school. Each one has an older “buddy” to help them at recess and lunch.

“We’re really excited to kick it off and it’s fun to see those little kids around,” he said. “It’s heartwarming really.”

Dr. Sharon Weiss echoed his enthusiasm.

“It is extremely rewarding as a superintendent to watch our schools enroll our 3- and 4-year-olds in our preschools and pre-kindergartens,” she said. “What better place is there to form our youngest school children in the faith and to teach them their academic beginnings than in our Catholic schools?”

She said Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, is committed to a Catholic education that is “seamless” from preschool to 12th grade and the efforts of Holy Cross in Champaign and St. Mary in Metamora are a reflection of his vision.

“It is most exciting, and I thank God for His faithfulness,” Weiss said.

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