Free preschool helps enhance Catholic school enrollment

By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

Since the Iowa Legislature established Iowa’s Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program (SWVPP) in 2007, thousands of 4-year-olds have been able to attend preschool for free throughout most of the state. This includes many Catholic schools in the Diocese of Davenport.

Anne Marie Amacher
Preschool/Prekindergarten teacher Cari Robinson of Lourdes Catholic School in Bettendorf displays new religion materials that the preschool received through a $7,000 grant from the Vonderhaar Foundation.

In the first year, funding was provided for 5,125 children to attend preschool through SWVPP. This past school year, 24,610 children were able to enroll through SWVPP, state figures show. This does not include children enrolled in other 4-year-old preschool programs.
John F. Kennedy Catholic School in Davenport is among the diocesan schools participating in the free preschool program. Principal Chad Steimle said that having more preschool options available at rates that families can afford has helped to open access to quality preschool programs.

Prior to the start of free voluntary preschool, JFK had 30-40 4-year-old preschoolers. “Now, we’re operating our preschool programs with 70-80 4-year-olds. Access to preschool has greatly increased, and it seems that more families are taking advantage of it,” Steimle said.

“I believe the quality of the preschool programs has also increased as providers pay close attention to preschool teacher licensing, program components, facility requirements, etc. Interest in Catholic schools for kindergarten has also increased. When people have positive experiences in our Catholic preschools, they look to see if they can continue those experiences through the rest of their children’s education,” Steimle noted.

Principal Ben Nietzel of Saints Mary and Mathias Catholic School in Muscatine agrees. “We have 80-100 kindergarten-eligible students attending our preschool. We know not all will attend, but some who may not have thought about sending their child to our school may rethink that. They see the culture and character of our school while attending preschool.”

Nietzel thinks the statewide program has given Catholic schools a “nice shot in the arm” to ease the financial cost of preschool for parents. All schools that participate in the free statewide program are paid a set amount of money, which covers the costs of the program. The state pays for 10 hours per week of prekindergarten instruction.

Sharon Roling, principal of St. Joseph Catholic School in DeWitt, said “the free preschool program has definitely helped St. Joe’s and our school families. It is convenient for parents to have their children in one building for their education. The program has also helped to increase our K-8 enrollment.

“One of my favorite examples is how one of our preschool families had decided on attendance at the public school until they saw one of our older students do an act of kindness for their child before the school day even started. This made a lasting impression on the parent and the child is currently a St. Joe’s student.”

One drawback to the statewide program is that religion cannot be part of the curriculum, said Lee Morrison, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. He said Catholic schools have adapted in different ways.

Lourdes Catholic School in Bettendorf, for example, offered a faith instruction class called Faith Fridays, said Principal Jennifer Alongi. Beginning this fall, Lourdes will now provide 12 hours of instruction per week instead of 10 hours. The extra two hours per week will allow for religion instruction.

“We charge families $100 for the entire year to provide faith instruction. Additionally, through a generous donation of $7,000 from the Vonderhaar Foundation, we were able to purchase all new religion curriculum and resources for all three preschool (3-year-olds) and pre-K (4-year olds) classrooms this summer. These materials are in the classrooms and ready to be utilized starting in the 2018-19 school year.”
JFK school also offers religious instruction outside the 10 hours funded by the state. “Families are free to pick up their children after the state-paid time or allow their children to continue. Seldom does anyone not allow their children to stay for the whole time that we offer.”

A number of small preschool providers operated “with their own styles and focus” prior to the start of free, voluntary preschool, Steimle observed. Several of the smaller preschools closed, but access to preschool increased as the larger preschools grew.

“I think the next trend we might see in Davenport, particularly dependent upon the options chosen in the Davenport Community School District’s Vision 2020 plan, is for more ‘neighborhood’ preschools where every public elementary building also has preschool. That would vary tremendously with other communities in our diocese,” Steimle said.

The free preschool program is a benefit for all Iowa children, Nietzel added.

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