A Nursery School at the Parish
By Fr Edward Pehanich
Have you ever passed by your local Catholic or Protestant Church with its accompanying church-sponsored school only to ask yourself “Why can’t our church operate such a school?” Have you ever enrolled your child in a preschool program at one of these churches as you asked yourself the same question? In 1985, with unused space in our church hall and large mortgage payments looming on the horizon, the pastor of our parish at the time began investigating the possibility of beginning some type of a parish-sponsored school. After months of research and hard work, St Gregory’s Nursery School opened in September, 1985 with an enrollment of 80 students, ages 3 and 4. Now, two years later, the school began the 1987-1988 academic year with a capacity enrollment of 189 students with many others on a waiting list.
St Gregory’s Nursery School operates with two sessions each day, the morning session running from 9:30 to 12 noon, the afternoon session running from 1:00 to 3:30. Parents registering their children have the option of choosing either a two, three, or five-day-a-week program. The Nursery School includes children of all races, nationalities, and creeds, and therefore it operates as a non-sectarian school with no religious training. The program includes music, art, story time, outdoor play in the playground, aerobics, cooking, field trips, and special events.
There is no direct participation in the program by members of our congregation since all the staff members are salaried and certified in their fields. Presently, our staff consists of two directors, 3 teachers, and 3 classroom aides. The operation of our School, primarily its financial management, is overseen by a Board of Directors consisting of the pastor, the two directors, the church financial secretary, and two members of the congregation. Any replacement of equipment or repairs for the Nursery School are paid from the School Funds, a separately maintained church account.
Impact on our Church
Probably the most rewarding aspect of such a parish-operated Nursery School is seeing the facilities of the church put to maximum use each day. What was originally a hall and conference room used, at most, one day a week, is now filled with the sounds of happy, energetic children. It is most gratifying to see each day carloads of mothers and children literally create a “traffic jam” in the church parking lot as they arrive for school.
The financial profitability of such a parish Nursery School cannot go unmentioned also. Our Nursery School provides our young, mission parish with a very large monthly income which enables us to meet the monthly mortgage payments on our church, hall, and rectory without depending too heavily on Diocesan subsidy.
Unfortunately, our church has not as yet experienced any church growth through our operation of the school. Although several parents have expressed an interest in attending our services and enrolling their children in our Church School, no one has yet followed through, despite our encouragement.
The greatest impact for our church has been in our church becoming well-known in the community through the excellent reputation of our Nursery School. As the pastor, I have frequent contact with our staff and many of the parents so that despite the newness of our church (7 years) and our small size (75 members), many people know who we are.
An encouraging help from the Nursery School has been that many parents also enroll their children in our annual Vacation Church School which we conduct for a week in August. This past year, we had an enrollment in our Vacation Church School of 37 children with approximately half of them from outside our congregation.
Since so many people are in and out of our buildings each day, we provide information on the life of our parish on our bulletin boards and we make a point of having some literature on the Orthodox Faith and pertinent topics available in the hall as well.
Tips for Operating a Nursery School
Before your parish even considers opening a Nursery School, examine what kind of an economic area your church is located in. In our Long Island neighborhood, most people are definitely upper middle class with a large disposable income which tends to make them more willing to invest in Nursery School for their children. The great number of Nursery Schools in our area also shows that most parents give their children some kind of educational experience prior to kindergarten; “it’s the thing to do” which may not be true in other areas of the country.
Of course, vital to operating such a school is having the available facilities. We were blessed to purchase the complex of a former Episcopal church which included a hall made up of a kitchen area, large hall, conference room and office. The conference room became our 3 year old classroom while the large hall was divided to form two 4 year old classrooms. However, because the hall is partitioned and set up for class use, we do have the drawback of not being able to hold any large affairs in it.
One of the reasons for the popularity of our school is the beautiful arrangement of the rooms with wall-to-wall carpeting, large windows, and modern bathroom facilities. The Church School uses the same facilities on Sunday. Therefore, there is the need to make sure Church School teachers and children leave the rooms as they were found, ready for the Nursery School on Monday.
A parish can operate a Nursery School in nearly any unused space: classrooms, hall, parish house, provided that the building meets the fire codes. Visit other schools in your area for ideas of what can be done with your situation.
As far as state regulations are concerned, these vary from state to state. In New York, any preschool program with sessions over 2 1/2 hours is considered day care and is heavily regulated by the state. With the type of program which we operate, there are few state regulations to meet.
Even more important than an attractive physical building for a successful preschool, is a competent, talented, dedicated staff. Needed first of all is a director who is well-experienced in Nursery School work and who can assume the day-to-day management and operation of the school. Enough cannot be said of the importance of this position to the future of any Nursery School.
Along with a director, teachers certified in early childhood education with talent and energy are vital to the success of the school. It is the teachers who have direct influence over these young minds and who work with the parents, so careful screening of applicants for the best candidates is needed.
Probably the easiest aspect for us in operating our Nursery School has been in enrolling students. The first year was the most difficult for us in this area and so we did a great amount of newspaper advertising, posters, flyers, etc. Once we began our program, we had our publicity by word of mouth so that today we do little or no advertising.
St Gregory’s Nursery School has been nothing but a positive experience for our young parish. However, no one should expect it to perform miracles in church growth and outreachthis is still the work of all the people of God! We encourage any parish that is seriously contemplating such a venture to contact us if we can assist in any way.