It’s lunchtime and just west of the Fort Benjamin Harrison YMCA, small school buses full of smiling faces pull up to the Gilliatte Building. Afternoon preschool begins for some of the area’s most underserved three- to five-year-olds coming from Indianapolis’ east side and Lawrence.
St. Mary’s Child Center, an outreach of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and a United Way community partner, provides an advanced early childhood education program serving 215 children, 95% of whom are living in poverty, at three Indianapolis locations. Children of all races converge with Reggio Emilia, Italy-inspired educators to receive an accredited education in their most formidable years.
Executive Director Connie Sherman, a former school teacher, leads the charge at St. Mary’s Child Center. Her passion for the mission reignited while attending a lecture by Marian Wright Edelman, CEO and Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund at Butler University, in 2001.
“She explained the ‘cradle to grave pipeline’: one in three black boys in poverty will end up in jail,” she said as her eyes welled up. “That touched me; I knew that we were doing the right thing at St. Mary’s.”
Not only was Sherman’s heart in alignment with the St. Mary’s mission, the curriculum was eye opening to her as well. Hailed as one of the best preschool programs in the world, the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education looks at children as “competent, resourceful, curious, imaginative, inventive, and desiring to interact and communicate with others.” Teachers are viewed as co-learners, chalkboards are replaced with group poster boards, and students are encouraged to learn from each other.
“Kids in poverty enter kindergarten 1-1/2 to 2 years behind, and the gap widens as they progress through school,” added Sherman.
It Takes a Village
Behind the mission of providing a high-quality education to our less fortunate children is an army of volunteers and donors. Thanks to them, St. Mary’s raises over 60% of their operating budget from four annual charity events:
•Spring Soiree (March 2)
•Annual Raffle (June 28)
•Golf Outing (August 9)
•Miracle Ball Black Tie Event (November 16)
In late 2000, Geist resident Bob Koehne got a phone call from a St. Mary’s supporter Dan Esposito offering him and his wife, Liz, a seat at his sponsored table for the Miracle Ball fundraiser. “We had a great time and loved the mission of helping these kids. The next year I wanted to go back, but Dan told me I had to buy my own table,” laughed Koehne. He went on to be a board member, president of the board of directors, and now serves as a senior advisor. “If you really want to make a difference in someone’s life, this is the place to be.”
Sherman is quick to point out the success of their programming is directly related to all the area school groups that volunteer, the board members who give countless hours, and committee chairs who not only organize their fundraisers but execute at a high level every year.
Reggio Emilia curriculum is typically offered at private schools. St. Mary’s Child Center is one of the only preschools (QUESTION FROM ERIN: where? In the US? In the world?) offering this program to the poor, with 95% of their students qualifying for their scholarship support paying just $5 per week. Students are taught in a 6:1 child-to-adult-ratio class, receive snacks and lunch, transportation to and from school, and free social services. “Annual costs for our services are $7,000 per child,” explains Sherman.
A breakthrough program developed years ago is called the Godparent program. Koehne estimates that 140 Godparents have committed to donating $2,000 per year to St. Mary’s “by writing a check for $2,000, selling 20 raffle tickets for $100 each, or sponsoring a foursome at our golf outing and a table at the Miracle Ball.”
“The Godparent program has been a great way for us to engage people who might not have the time to serve on our board or volunteer, but they can help financially and that is important, too,” added Sherman.
Open Enrollment for Fall
Starting this fall, St. Mary’s will begin enrolling non-scholarship students to their schools. Sherman says the experiment began at their Butler Lab School at IPS 60 when members of the Butler University community began putting their children in the Reggio Emilia-taught classrooms. Their attraction to the program: exceptional quality.
“When you have social and economic diversity, both groups come out better than they would have otherwise,” claims Sherman. “Besides, it also helps us expand our scholarship program by adding more revenue to our bottom line.”
Rates for non-qualified students will be $90 per week for ½ day preschool and $175 per week for full-day enrollment. Parents who are interested should call 317-361-4887 or visit the website at www.stmaryschildcenter.org.
How You Can Help
If you would like to help St. Mary’s Child Center by giving of your time, talent, or treasure to provide high-quality early intervention to Indy’s most needy children, here is a short list of contact numbers:
•Become a godparent: 317-361-4882
•General inquiries: 317-543-0782
“It’s a special place where you can make a difference in a short amount of time,” said Koehne.