St. John Catholic School's first kindergarten filling a need CARROLL COUNTY EDUCATION


WESTMINSTER -- A grade school without a kindergarten just didn't seem right to Principal Patricia Brink when she came to St. John Catholic School nine years ago.

There were no very small people learning in the gentle manner that teacher Nancy Gregg now uses.

This school year, for the first time, there are.

"If I were a bird, I'd fly, fly to the store for my father," Mrs. Gregg and the children sing as they walk in a line and flap their arms to the song.

The lyrics teach them that birds fly, fish swim, bugs crawl and bunnies hop. The movements let them have fun learning it, and burn off a little end-of-the-day energy as well.

In their blue-and-green plaid uniforms, they look small to be making history as the school's first kindergarten since it opened in 1866.

Meanwhile, two giant sunflowers dry on a table, showing the origin of the seeds the children find in their snacks and breads.

"We made a decision to have a developmental kindergarten," Miss Brink said.

The developmental theory of education introduces children to concepts and tasks as they become ready for them, without pushing tasks such as reading until a child is ready for it, Mrs. Gregg said.

"Some of them are reading already, others have no idea," she said. "It's quite possible some of them won't learn to read until first grade."

In developmental education, Mrs. Gregg said, "The program is striving to meet all the needs of the children -- physical, emotional, intellectual, and we add the spiritual to it."

Said Miss Brink, "We're going to take an eclectic approach and use a lot of things. It's not a pencil-and-book kindergarten."

Mrs. Gregg has 15 years of experience, first as a kindergarten teacher in Baltimore, but mainly as a preschool teacher at various private programs, most recently the Carroll County YMCA. She also has taught religious education at St. John for those not enrolled in the school full time.

Miss Brink isn't sure why the school had no kindergarten until now.

"It was always a goal of mine," she said. "I thought by my second year here we could open a kindergarten, but we really didn't have the room."

The church just finished a $1.5 million addition to the school that now holds the kindergarten, grades one through four and the computer lab. Grades five through eight remain in the old building, which was once a high school and has science labs.

Also, two classrooms in the old building were renovated into art and music rooms.

But the kindergarten is one of Miss Brink's favorite places in the building now.

"Just because I love the little kids," she said. "I was able to open a kindergarten at my other school [Most Precious Blood School in Baltimore, where she was principal]. I thought, I can do the same here."

Miss Brink received a Catholic education from kindergarten through graduate school at Loyola College. She received her bachelor's degree at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

When she was an eighth-grader, she said, she helped out in the kindergarten room.

"That's when I decided I wanted to be a teacher," she said.

Before St. John built its kindergarten, several families in the church sent their children to Faith Christian School, then to St. John for first grade.

That's what Michele Nieberlein of Avondale Run was planning to do, but her daughter, Jessica, is among the first kindergarten class.

"My husband graduated from St. John," as did several other members of their families, she said. "I thought it would be good if she would get the religious education."

The classes have 17 students in the morning and 18 in the afternoon sessions. But 58 families wanted to get their children in at registration. Even though the waiting list has enough names to start a whole new section, Miss Brink said the school has no plans to expand yet.

Little Jessica might have had a slight edge because her mother called the school right after she was born. Her son is 2 now, and she hopes he will go to St. John someday.

The $1.5 million for the school was raised through pledges from parishioners. The tuition, $1,000 for a half-day, barely pays the operating costs, Miss Brink said.

In addition to the hallway connecting the old and new building, family ties cross them. Most of the children in the kindergarten class have older siblings at the school. Many come to pick up a little brother or sister and walk hand-in-hand with them to meet the bus or their rides home.

During a class excursion to tour the old building, one pig-tailed little girl pointed into a classroom of older children and proudly declared, "That's my sister."

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