By Janis Fontaine
When their older brothers and sisters return to classes at St. Vincent Ferrer School in Delray Beach, the youngest students will have a place to learn and play, too.
St. Vincent is nearly tripling the size of its preschool programs, adding a full-day program for 3-year-olds to its 4-year-old class, and adding a half-day program for 3- and 4-year-olds who don’t want to commit to a full day of school.
When they’re not playing in their bright, new classrooms, they may be outside on their new playground.
St. Vincent has been investing in children’s education for 65 years. The school recently finished a $6.5 million renovation to accommodate the 360 students attending kindergarten through eighth grade. Now preschoolers are getting the attention and improvements.
Julie O’Brien is the director of early learning for the preschool program but she’s been teaching at the school for 12 years. She said that since Monsignor Thomas Skindeleski arrived in 2005, the school has increased enrollment in the primary school from fewer than 150. And it built a whole new wing of classrooms.
She said Skindeleski also brought in the voluntary pre-K voucher program, and “we are now up to date with technology everywhere.”
At the same time church leaders upgraded the school, “we definitely saw there was a need for more programs for the younger kids,” O’Brien said.
Parents like the convenience of one drop-off place, and those who hope to enroll their children in kindergarten at the school see the pre-K classrooms as a bonus.
And parents who may be paying for day care anyway are getting more academics at St. Vincent and religious education, of course.
“The Catholic faith is at the top of what we do,” O’Brien says. “We use songs, stories and crafts to teach young kids about God.”
Second is children’s social and emotional health, and the school teaches a program called “conscious discipline.” O’Brien says it’s about teachers creating a school family where kids feel safe, loved and cared for, and where they can learn to safely express and handle their emotions. “We do a lot of breathing,” she says, laughing.
The academic instruction comes via a curriculum from Frog Street. “We are a school, not a day care,” O’Brien says.
Much of it is about establishing routines, helping kids adjust to social situations and learn to listen to directions.
And “I love you” rituals are short interactions with the youngest kids to let them know someone is listening to what’s important to them.
The entire school reopened on-campus learning last August, several months into the coronavirus pandemic, after spending about $125,000 on upgrades for personal protection equipment, an air purification system and live-stream tech improvements.
The school follows the guidelines established by the Catholic Diocese and the superintendent of schools.
Parents and students have been very cooperative, making the precautions easier to handle, O’Brien said. Masks will likely still be worn by at least some students and staff when school resumes in the fall, although the leaders don’t expect the coronavirus to affect the new school year as it did the last.
Still, teachers and staff are cautious about declaring victory over the pandemic. Some kids might still be afraid or unsure about safety issues.
“These kids have been victims of trauma,” O’Brien said. “We have to be aware of that.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about St. Vincent Ferrer School’s pre-K programs, call Stephanie Lang at 561-278-3868. The school is at 810 George Bush Blvd., in Delray Beach.