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St. Mary of the Assumption Preschool in Hockessin.

All of the Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Wilmington have preschools, but three parishes also operate their own without a tie to another school.

The freestanding preschools at St. Mary of the Assumption in Hockessin, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Bear, and St. Christopher’s in Chester, Md., have carved out a niche of their own over the past several years.

Cindy Krebs is the director of the preschool at St. Mary of the Assumption, a position she assumed last August. She has been employed at the parish, however, since 2018 as the director of religious education. The preschool at St. Mary of the Assumption has an enrollment of approximately 100 2- to 4-year-olds.

The youngsters are there for a half-day, from 9 a.m.-noon. The 2-year-olds are there for either two or three days, while there are options of either three or five days for the older children. St. Mary’s, like its counterparts, operates according to the standards set forth by its state department of education.

“We are a traditional preschool, but we are licensed by the office for Child Care Licensing,” Krebs said.

She has been at the preschool for just about six months, but from her understanding, the people of the parish like the community that has been built around the preschool. St. Mary’s, Krebs said, has a great reputation in the community.

St. Christopher’s Preschool in Chester, Md.

The lone freestanding parish preschool on the Eastern Shore is on Kent Island. Director Sissy Romanek has been there for more than 20 years. She said the school has been open for approximately 23 years. About 75-80 children between the ages of 2-5 attend, with 10 teachers on staff, all certified by the state of Maryland.

“It’s really been good,” she said. “Parents come here first.”

Romanek said a lot of the families in the school are parishioners, and others like the religious background of the education provided. Faith education is a staple at St. Christopher’s.

“They know all of the prayers. They’ve been in and out of the church,” Romanek said. The children recite prayers before each day begins and again at lunchtime. “We want them to become part of the church. That’s why we’re here.”

The other preschools also include faith development into their curriculum. At St. Mary of the Assumption, the children hear and read Bible stories, and they attend short prayer services once a month.

The nearest Catholic school-based program to St. Christopher’s is at St. Mary’s in Annapolis, Md., about 16 miles away over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, while Ss. Peter and Paul School is a half-hour car ride to Easton, Md. Romanek said it is not unusual for graduates of the St. Christopher’s program to continue on in one of those Catholic elementary schools.

Janet Gargani, the director of the preschool at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton of Bear, said their program has about 10 3-year-olds and 13 4-year-olds in their program. The families that are there are very loyal, she said.

“They’re real supportive of us and keep coming back. We have a lot of repeat siblings,” she said.

Their size works to their advantage. “It’s easy to get to work one-on-one with them. We get to know the kids. We get to know the families.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Preschool in Bear.

Joanne Gentile, who teaches at Seton with Gargani, said they are able to prepare the children for their next educational step, whether that is another year at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton or moving on to kindergarten.

“We can take the time to help them in certain areas if they’re struggling,” Gentile said.

Father Roger DiBuo, the longtime pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, noted that the preschool was established with the parish 44 years ago.

“This is one ministry that has gone nonstop for decades,” he said.

The children in the program get an age-appropriate education, develop socialization skills and learn about their faith “in a very comfortable environment, an environment that they know as their church,” he said. The schools also bring new people into the parish, “and that’s always a blessing.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s half-day program fits a niche for parents who do not desire a full day for their children, Father DiBuo said. For those churches or other organizations that might look at adding a freestanding preschool, he said they should expect lots of challenges and competition until the new programs are established. Seton, having been around for so long, is past that part.
“Our blessing is that people know we’re here, and they know what we do and the quality that we do it,” he said.

Gargani said families appreciate being able to bring their children to a familiar setting, such as their church. “They know where their child’s going. I think they feel comfortable knowing they’re in a Catholic setting.”

Krebs said she is glad St. Mary of the Assumption has a preschool.

“I think it adds life and youth to the parish. It helps the young families feel like part of a community, and if that’s associated with the church, that’s a good thing,” she said. “It’s providing a quality preschool education in a faithful and safe environment.”

Romanek said other area entities have added or are considering adding a preschool. The elementary schools, she said, are looking to build preschools as parents seek out early childhood education at younger ages.

“They noticed that we were doing it, and we were doing it well. A lot of private schools in the area have done the same thing,” she said.

She said St. Christopher’s is a growing parish, and she would like to see even more of its youngest parishioners attend the preschool. She likes seeing the youngsters grow up and receive their sacraments at the parish. They also continue to learn about Catholicism at St. Christopher’s.

“It really has helped our religious ed program as well,” she said.