Fill a new backpack with pencils, notebooks and rulers, splash it with a bit of holy water, and you’re ready to begin a new school year at Casa del Carmen Preschool Academy, part of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS).
Located in the Philadelphia’s Hunting Park section, the academy is one of the many programs offered through Casa del Carmen, a CSS family service center that has assisted the Latino population of North Philadelphia since 1954.
Now in its 20th year, the preschool academy will welcome 73 children between the ages of 3 and 5 for the new term, according to director Shari Gold.
“A lot of them have never been in preschool before; they’ve just come out of their grandmothers’ kitchens for the first time,” said Gold, a Chestnut Hill College graduate with over 25 years of teaching experience. “We’re excited to begin working with them.”
To start both students and parents off on the right foot, Gold and her team organized a “blessing of the backpacks” and open house on Aug. 30. The orientation enabled caregivers and teachers to meet prior to the start of classes on Sept. 4, making the first day of school less stressful for all.
In the school’s library, rows of new backpacks filled with school supplies awaited the incoming class. The bags and their contents are a gift — one suggested by the school’s administrator, Camille Crane, and office manager Janet De Jesus.
“It’s a practical and personal way of helping the children,” said De Jesus. “Each bag is individually tagged to show they’re each part of us here.”
During the Aug. 30 open house, Father Al Concha, pastor of St. William Parish in Philadelphia, blessed the backpacks and school supplies to ensure that their new owners would enjoy a safe and successful school year.
“The backpacks that students carry are often heavy, both literally and figuratively,” said Father Concha. “That’s why we need teachers, friends, moms and dads to help us carry them.”
Sister Rose Patrice Kuhn, I.H.M., director of pastoral ministry for St. William’s Hispanic community, led children, parents and teachers in a bilingual prayer asking for God’s help during the new academic year.
Sister Kuhn noted that area parishes rely on Casa del Carmen, which provided a wide array of resources to approximately 13,000 individuals in 2017.
“We are one, holy, Catholic, universal church,” said Sister Kuhn. “We work together to meet the needs of the community. Our parish does not necessarily have the resources that other parishes have, so we really do count on Casa del Carmen and Catholic Social Services to help us.”
Crane observed that parish partnerships expand Casa del Carmen’s reach, making its services available to a wider range of clients.
“It gives us the ability to extend more deeply into the community,” she said. “We have tremendous resources – such as money to help with rent and other benefits – and these projects let us bring them to the people who don’t necessarily walk to our doorstep.”
With increased awareness of Casa del Carmen’s services, enrollment has spiked at the preschool academy, which has earned high marks with its funding and regulatory partners. The Pennsylvania Department of Education gave the school its highest rating in recognition of Casa’s responsive early education strategy and overall management.
“Casa was very highly recommended by my coworkers and friends,” said Sarai Colon-Aquino, whose daughter Isabel will begin her second year at the school.
Open year-round from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. every weekday, the academy offers classes in science, math, reading and listening skills.
Art activities, play periods and naps round out the day, which includes breakfast, lunch and a snack provided through archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services as part of the federal school meals program.
Like the rest of Casa’s staff, the academy’s teachers are bilingual, and lessons are taught in both English and Spanish.
“We’re always going to be multicultural and bilingual,” said Gold, who recently completed her Master’s degree in educational leadership. “And we’re going to focus a lot on fathers this year, having more of our dads come out and participate in our school activities.”
The staff are also looking to reduce digital distraction among parents through a new policy that restricts cell phone use past the school’s entrance.
“Once you walk in through the door, look up,” said Wilma Lillo, the academy’s assistant director. “Come ask your teachers how you child’s day was, or ask about upcoming events, or just say hi.”
Such policies reflect the diligence with which the academy staff approach every aspect of early childhood education, said Gold.
“Preschool is foundational; studies show that children who go to preschool enjoy going to school,” she said. “We focus on socialization as well as academics. It’s not just about the ABC’s – it’s about having a connection with your fellow humans.”
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