By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
PARKVILLE — Pssst! “Day care.”
“We don’t use the D-word around here,” said Ann Lachowitzer, director of the Early Education Center at St. Therese Parish.
No, they don’t. The 33 staff members who are in charge of the world’s most precious gifts — 160 children between the ages of 6 weeks and 5 years — know that they have the most important job in the known world.
And that would be helping these growing brains reach their full potential as they physically develop as they never will again.
Michael Mannell has been doing it for 12 years as a pre-kindergarten teacher of children aged three to five.
“I had a friend who thought I’d be good with kids. So I applied here 12 years ago and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Sure, he could probably make more money doing some other job. But he wouldn’t enjoy his life nearly as much, he said.
“It’s the families. It’s the kids. It’s the whole community,” Mannell said. “I’m getting rich in the heart.”
Diocesan Assistant School Superintendent Pat Burbach said that early education was born out of the “day care” necessity of families needing two paychecks to earn a middle class lifestyle. But it quickly moved beyond that, and largely thanks to an old Lyndon Johnson “War on Poverty” program called Head Start.
That program began 50 years ago as a short-term summer program to prepare children in low-income families for kindergarten.
Burbach said that Head Start also opened federal dollars into long-neglected research into how the brain functions and forms during the earliest years of a human’s life.
That research revealed that from infancy through age 5, children’s brains are beginning to make critical connections as various brain functions begin to develop. Even newborns — especially newborns — are beginning to make sense of the world around them, but need the stimulation of language, pictures, play and activities to spark those critical brain functions and connections into life.
“Children learn from the moment they are born,” Lachtowitzer said. “That’s when the connections are being made.”
And that is why it is critical to have adults talking to them, reading to them, playing with them, and especially holding them.
“It’s what good moms have always done,” said Kelly Carroll, assistant director at St. Therese Early Education Center. “If those brain connections aren’t made, it’s a missed opportunity. It can’t be made up later. Those first five years are the most important.”
Burbach said that St. Therese is one of 26 Catholic early education centers in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and one of four that enroll infants as young as six weeks. She is quick to point out that she is following the groundbreaking work of former diocesan Assistant Superintendent Tom Blake in championing early education.
She will also note that St. Therese is one of several in the diocese that is fully accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and there is no higher accreditation for an early education center than that.
Soon, every one of the Catholic centers will be accredited, she said.
“They are all working hard at that,” Burbach said. “They are all doing fabulous things with children.”
And parents, too.
Lachowitzer said that St. Therese operates under the Catholic philosophy that parents are the primary educators of their children. It is the job of any Catholic school to assist parents in that all-important job.
She said that she, Carroll and all of the teachers and staff make sure that they know every parent that enrolls their child as soon as possible. Every staff member also assures every parent that every child will be loved, as well as nurtured physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
“These children deserve the same respect we give adults,” Lachowitzer said. “Every child is gifted. We just have to know what their gifts are.”
“One of the most important jobs we have is to get to know the students, get to know the families,” Carroll said.
And every moment is an opportunity for teaching and learning, Lachowitzer said.
For instance, a seven-month-old infant girl was playing with a shiny toy, when a bigger, older infant does what bigger, older infants do and took it away from the younger girl.
“You could just read her face — ‘What just happened?’” Lachowitzer said.
But before a crisis could erupt, the teacher turned to the younger baby, got down to her level, looked her directly in the eyes, and said, “Did he just take that away from you? Would you like me to find you another one?”
“That was all about the teacher giving that that child language and helping them identify their feelings,” Lachowitzer said. “That is so important, because infants need to hear those things because the language skills areas of their brains are still developing.”
She pointed to another classroom where teacher Elaine Bretz had just read a story to two-year-olds and had invited them to draw a picture about that story.
No, they weren’t coloring between the lines. One little girl had grabbed a gluestick and was pasting tiny colored pom-poms to a sheet of paper as her response to the story. What did that mean? Not important.
“Elaine is modeling reading to them. And she is also showing them respect by giving each one of them undivided attention at their eye level, which tells them that what they are saying and what they are doing is important,” Lachowitzer said.
At this age, all learning is child-centered. It may look like fun, it may look like play, but it is also helping that young brain grow, Lachowitzer said.
“Developmentally, their brains are not ready yet to handle the rigor of teacher-directed activity. We don’t want to push them too hard and too fast,” she said. “Our philosophy is to allow children to play. We allow them to make choices.”
“With child-directed activities, they get to use their imaginations,” Carroll added. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and so much has changed since then.”
In addition to being as state-of-the-art as possible, St. Therese Early Education Center is also fully Catholic to its core, Burbach said, as is every school in the diocese, from the early education centers through high school.
“We aren’t just about forming the minds. It’s also about the heart of that child,” Burbach said.
True, pre-schoolers may not be ready to learn the finer points of Catholic teaching and dogma. But they certainly learn by watching the adults around them model it, Lachowitzer said.
Every wall in every room at the St. Therese Early Education Center has a cross. Every child is learning to pray, or if they are too young yet, they are watching their teachers pray frequently throughout the day.
“It’s the way we teach. It’s how we model our own Catholic values. It’s a big part of who we are,” Lachowitzer said. “It starts in early education, and continues through elementary school and high school.”
“We’re praying, they know it, and they appreciate it,” Carroll said.
Burbach said the Catholic early education centers have another secret weapon — a core of dedicated staff who stay on the job for years despite an industry-wide low level of pay throughout early education.
“People enter this work by choice knowing it’s a service, it’s ministry,” Burbach said. “If they don’t have that heart, they don’t stay long. And in most of our centers, we have teachers who have been around for years and years and years.”
By Kevin Kelly