Church attendance among adults may be on the decline, but that isn’t stopping parents from sending their children to preschools run by religious institutions.
According to nearly 40 years of Gallup poll data, American confidence in organized religion has been decreasing since the 1970s. Many Americans appear to be losing faith in the system: Last year, the Pew Research Center reported increasing numbers of adults stating they seldom or never attend religious services, and the percentage of religiously unaffiliated individuals is growing.
Despite fewer adults buying into religion, though, many parents are sending their children to church-run preschools as pre-kindergarten education becomes increasingly important.
The preschool at Aurora’s Eastern Hills Community Church, for example, is headed into its seventh year this fall. In 2008, the program enrolled 60 students and employed six teachers. This year, more than 260 students will participate in the program, and the staff has expanded to include 30 teachers. What’s more, preschool director Shannon Peterson said the program runs a wait list of 70 to 100 children each year.
“We’ve established a great reputation,” said Peterson, who has worked in early childhood education for nearly 30 years. “Parents recognize a quality preschool, and I’ve had so many families express how wonderful the teachers are. This isn’t a stepping stone for the teachers; it’s what they have chosen to do for their careers.”
“The importance [of preschool] has always been there, but I think even more so now the country is seeing the importance of the educational aspect versus just the child care aspect,” Peterson added.
According to a 2010 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, both the quantity and quality of non-relative child care received before age 5 are linked to academic and cognitive achievement in adolescent years. The higher quality the preschool education is, the greater the results are later in life.
“Research is showing that the learning that occurs from the time a child is born to the time they are 7 or 8 is the most important learning,” said Sister Elizabeth Youngs, the associate superintendent for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Denver. “Nationwide, preschool is getting more attention and scrutiny. As more parents begin working outside the home and cannot be with their children all day, finding good preschools has become more important.”
And, in the search for good preschools, many parents are turning to local churches. Peterson said churches are the perfect venue for preschool programs, since their buildings are otherwise used mainly on weekends or in the evening.
“You have these big buildings that for the most part are used very sparingly during the day,” she said. “Also, I think families are looking for the love and care that a church community can provide for not only their child but for their whole family. We really feel a strong responsibility to minister to the whole family, not just the child in our care.”
Based on the popularity of these programs, the structure appears to be working. Youngs said that, while the churches within the Archdiocese of Denver give priority to their parishioners, 25 to 30 percent of the students do not attend the church associated with their preschool program, nor do their parents.
“Our preschools are nondiscriminatory,” Youngs said. “We try to give priority to parishioners, but we take whoever comes to us. Our preschools are high quality, and parents see it as kind of a private preschool.”
Compared to non-religious private preschools, though, many of the church-run programs are more affordable. At Eastern Hills and Lord of the Hills preschools, which are both nonprofits, tuition runs around $24 per hour for a three-hour program four days per week. At the Montessori School of Aurora, a private preschool, it’s closer to $35 per hour for their three-hour program five days a week.
“We aren’t in it for the profit; we are in it for the children,” said Meg Stenman, director of the Lord of the Hills Preschool. “All of the faith-based preschools in the area charge about the same tuition. We actually get together every year to see where we all are. We all want to be on the same page because of our similarities and location.”
With such differences in tuition, religious and non-religious parents alike are turning to church-run programs for their children. At Eastern Hills Preschool, roughly 70 percent of the student body is comprised of community members that do not attend the church. At Lord of the Hills Preschool down the road, nearly 90 percent of the children come from outside the church.
Stenman said about half of the 96 children in the Lord of the Hills program do not have any religious background at all. Of the remaining half, only about 10 children actually attend Lord of the Hills; the rest attend different churches in the area but come to Lord of the Hills for preschool.
“I have talked to parents who have no church background but want their kids to have it, or people who maybe grew up with the church but don’t go now,” Stenman said. “When you have kids, you look at them and might realize they need some kind of foundation that you can’t provide. There could be a million different reasons why they don’t attend our church but want their kids to have a Christian foundation.”
Deanna Griffiths, a local mother whose children are now 9 and 12, is one such parent. She sent her eldest daughter to preschool at the Holy Love Lutheran Church for two years before she attended kindergarten. Griffiths herself did not attend the church, but she had noticed the preschool program while driving by.
“We lived really close to the preschool at the time, and whenever I drove by it was always packed, the kids were always having a good time and were happy, and I liked that it was at a church,” Griffiths said. “I knew that when she was old enough I would send her there.”
Many of the church-run preschools are similar to non-religious early childhood education programs and follow the same educational guidelines. Youngs said there is an intensive focus on developmentally appropriate academics, ranging from spatial awareness and learning colors to practicing counting and playing with others.
Where the difference lies, though, is in the inclusion of basic religious lessons. At the Catholic preschools, children learn about Catholic traditions and prayer in between playing house and stacking blocks. Griffiths said it was much the same at Holy Love.
“They were all very loving and caring people; they cared about the kids and they cared about teaching,” Griffiths said. “I talked to a teacher and she said she loved teaching there because she got to teach the kids about Jesus. They really believe in what they are doing.”
At Eastern Hills, Peterson described the program as a play-based preschool.
“That doesn’t mean academics aren’t happening; it just means it’s done in a developmentally appropriate way,” Peterson said. “We focus on emotional, social, physical, cognitive and spiritual growth, and we do that through a hands-on learning experience.”
Each week, the preschoolers at Eastern Hills gather for worship time. Students listen to a story from a children’s Bible, sing songs and say short prayers.
“It’s really about trying to bring the biblical principles down to age-appropriate levels,” Peterson said. “The Christian philosophy and attitude are woven through everything we do.”
Both Peterson and Stenman said their preschools flourish thanks to parent referrals and word-of-mouth publicity. Local schools also send students their way to help prepare them for kindergarten.
“Kindergarten now is what first grade was 20 years ago,” Stenman said. “Parents want their kids ready. It’s not just about reading and writing skills; it’s about social skills. At this age, how kids handle themselves in social situations is as important as the [academic] skills they have. Helping their social wellbeing is so important so that they know how to deal with their peers.”
Peterson also stressed the importance of early childhood education, especially since recent studies have demonstrated its benefits to children’s academic development. According to Child Care Aware of America, children who receive quality preschool education are more likely to score higher on reading and math tests and are also more likely to graduate high school and attend college.
“Children who participate in early childhood education programs have so much greater success,” Peterson said. “It’s about providing a safe, nurturing environment for children to have those first experiences away from mom and dad and helping them transition into the elementary school system.”