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Calico Cat Preschool Celebrates 40 Years in a Changing Environment for Early Childhood Education

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Calico Cat Preschool celebrates 40 years in South River

Calico Cat Preschool students from the summer program pose next to the fortieth anniversary banner on the front lawn of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in South River.

On September 22, 2019, Calico Cat Preschool in South River is celebrating forty years of service to children and families in Middlesex County.

Calico Cat was founded in 1979 as a nursery school, offering part-time morning and afternoon programs. In 2009 Calico Cat became a full-day childcare provider, offering full- and part-time preschool programs, with a capacity for fifty children, from 2.5 to 6 years of age.

Calico Cat was established by Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, and some of the founding families remain active in the leadership of the church and in the governance of the school. September 22, 2019, will be observed as Calico Cat Sunday at the 10 a.m. worship with special prayers and songs by the children of the school; a cookout and potluck picnic will follow the anniversary service in the church’s picnic grove (or in the parish hall, in case of inclement weather). Both currently enrolled children and their families and alumni of the school of all ages are invited to attend the anniversary church service and picnic.

The Rev. Gregory Bezilla, Holy Trinity’s rector (pastor) reflects on the school as a ministry of the church: “Calico Cat is Holy Trinity’s embassy to our community. Many people in the town know us because their children attended our preschool to prepare for Kindergarten.”

A Changing Environment for Childcare and Early Childhood Education

Calico Cat’s fortieth anniversary comes at a time of great change. Commercial daycare centers are proliferating. Local school districts are beginning to offer preschool programs (albeit with limited enrollment). Smaller nursery schools or preschools based at, or sponsored by, religious congregations are closing their doors.

Calico Cat’s director and lead teacher in the four-year-old class Ilona Spatola, who has taught at the school since 2009, is responding the challenges of attracting families in this competitive childcare environment. For the new school year Calico Cat has invested in the nationally-recognized Creative Curriculum for Preschools, which is based on the most current pedagogical approaches to early childhood education. “Children learn best,” says Spatola, “through guided play, through hands-on explorations and investigations geared to children’s individual interests and choices, and through art and their innate capacity for creativity.”

In this competitive environment, Spatola and her staff make a case for Calico Cat:

Smaller class sizes offer more individualized attention to individual students needs. The school cares for the whole child: developmentally, emotionally, socially, academically and spiritually. The staff, both lead teachers and assistants, have long tenures; there is low staff turnover (in contrast to the higher staff turnover at commercial providers). Calico Cat is open all year, including summer—important for working families. The nurturing approach of Calico Cat is important for working families who need to place their children in a full-time program. The more time children are away from home, the more important the quality and nurturing aspect of the program become. Parents value the daily face-to-face time with staff at drop-off and pick-off, opportunities for them to communicate about their children’s needs and progress. In the new school year families will also receive daily digital reports on their children’s activities The school welcomes children from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds. Children learn English as a second language. They may come to Calico Cat speaking only Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic or Polish, but they quickly learn English. Lead teachers all speak a second language. “It’s a close-knit community,” said Alyssa Cosentino, an assistant in the three-year-old classroom. “The staff know not only the children and families in their own classroom but in the entire school.”  Adult alumni of the school enroll their own children—it’s a tradition for local families. Public school teachers are enthusiastic about the preparation for Kindergarten and choose to enroll their own children in Calico Cat. As a small school in a neighborhood setting, Calico Cat relies on the strength of word of mouth; families recommend Calico Cats to their friends. Calico Cat is affordable for working families, offering a range of full- and part-time and programs. Families also may enroll their children for after-school programs. Calico Cat provides nutritious meals and snacks, and also accommodates the individual dietary needs of the children. Calico Cat also accepts tuition subsidies from Childcare Solutions of Middlesex County (formerly known as Catholic Charities). Calico Cat supports the work of occupational and speech therapists. Calico Cat partners with community organizations such as Soccer Shots for sports instructions and other enrichments for children. The local Fire and Police Departments, Public Library, retired public school teachers, and other members of the local community visit the school for a variety of educational programs with the children.

Caring for the Spiritual Lives of Children and the Local Community

In a time of declining Sunday church attendance and membership across denominations, Calico Cat provides families with a weekly spiritual enrichment. Children come from a variety of religious backgrounds, and only some may be regularly involved in the ministries of a church. Children learn to feel at home in and how to participate in the church rituals. They are encouraged to ask questions and to sing hymns and spiritual songs. Families report that their children suddenly burst out in a hymn in the middle of a grocery store aisle, or that their children retell the biblical stories at the family dinner table.

“Every week I welcome the children into the church for a lesson based on a story from the Bible,” reflects Holy Trinity’s priest, Father Greg. “We sing songs, we pray, and we act out the biblical stories in skits that convey the biblical message in a playful way which is accessible to kids. It’s a highlight of my week!”  Says Bezilla, “When the children leave the church, I bless each child. In turn, the children may say to me ‘I love you’ or offer a hug. That’s why our church offers Calico Cat to our community—we are nurturing loving people for a world in need of their care and compassion."

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