St. Matthew, Champaign, welcomes new principal; set to open preschool

"It's almost like a dream come true -- my passion of being an educator and still being able to practice my faith daily," says Michelle Biggs, the new principal of St. Matthew School in Champaign. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

CHAMPAIGN — St. Matthew School is poised to start a preschool next week and new principal Michelle Biggs couldn’t be a better fit — she has national board certification in early childhood education.

“Things happen for a reason and God opens doors when you least expect it,” she said.

A teacher and assistant principal in Kansas and Oklahoma, Biggs moved to Champaign in June to join her husband, Joey, the new director of operations for men’s basketball at the University of Illinois. They have two daughters, Jenika, 7, and Jackelynn, 6.

Michelle Biggs has  national board certification in early childhood education. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

St. Matthew was one of three schools they toured in the spring and Michelle Biggs said principal Petrece Klein couldn’t have been more welcoming. They also received a warm reception from the teachers and students, so Jenika and Jackelynn will be among them when the new school year starts.

Even though she didn’t have the intention of working during the family’s first year in Illinois, Biggs was approached to apply for the job of principal when Klein relocated with her family.

“She’s been great. She has emailed me and left me amazing notes,” Biggs said of her predecessor.

“I always said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we were somewhere where they actually had a Catholic school for the girls to be in and I could teach there?’ And here we are,” she told The Catholic Post.

DREAM COME TRUE

Born and raised in Emporia, Kansas, Biggs attended Catholic school through fifth grade, because the numbers didn’t warrant going beyond that, she explained.

As she continued in public school, she made friends with two students who had special needs. That friendship inspired her to go into education and help children with special needs.

Biggs holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with a focus on special education, from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. She earned one master’s degree in curriculum and leadership, and another in administration from Oklahoma State University.

In Kansas, she was a special education teacher and kindergarten teacher in an English Language Learners program where 94 percent of the students were Hispanic. In Oklahoma, she was a special education teacher, third grade teacher and assistant principal in public schools in Stillwater, because there were no Catholic schools.

“It’s almost like a dream come true — my passion of being an educator and still being able to practice my faith daily,” she said. “To be surrounded by people who have the same beliefs and to be able to nurture and educate children in the Catholic faith to make them become deeper in their faith and productive citizens of the community and continue that is just awesome.”

MEETING NEEDS

Biggs is also excited to be able to use her background in early childhood education to help the new preschool at St. Matthew get off to a good start.

Half-day classes for 4-year-olds will be held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, and for 3-year-olds on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Their teacher, Emily O’Donnell, has been holding play dates so the students can get to know one another and the parents can meet.

“I think early intervention is the key to a lot of things,” Biggs said. “This is the perfect time for them to come in and begin socialization and begin learning while still having fun. It’s just good for the child.”

“It’s an important part of the readiness process for success in school,” said Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Peoria. “Certainly students who have had no preschool probably are at a disadvantage, at least when they initially start kindergarten.”

Out of 36 diocesan elementary schools, 34 have preschools now, he told The Post, adding that there has been steady growth in enrollment for this age group since 2009.

“We’ve increased from 1,217 students in the 2009-2010 school year to 1,553 this past school year, 2016-2017. That’s more than 25 percent,” Sanderson said.

Holy Cross School in Champaign started a preschool three years ago and opened a new preschool building last fall.

“With the presence now of preschool programs in both of our Catholic elementary schools in Champaign, that’s going to really ensure a stable base to build their enrollment on all grade levels.”

“We see our preschool programs as an opportunity to evangelize young families and, in many cases, to reconnect them with their faith and with the Catholic Church.” — Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of schools, Diocese of Peoria

For Father Robert Rayson, pastor at St. Matthew, it’s about meeting needs.

“Many of our young families have had to outsource their preschool needs so we wanted to offer a program that targets these families and provides a Catholic and academic approach that many families are desiring,” he said.

While they are beginning with a part-time program, he said they anticipate moving to a full-time program next year.

Looking to the future, Father Rayson said he hopes this will not only help build enrollment at St. Matthew, but provide a seamless transition from Catholic elementary education to Catholic secondary education at The High School of Saint Thomas More.

Another need is being met, Sanderson said.

“We see our preschool programs as an opportunity to evangelize young families and, in many cases, to reconnect them with their faith and with the Catholic Church,” he said.

 

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