From the sanctuary to the classroom: Preschools play increasing role in church care, outreach

By Porsche Barton

Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.

Several United Methodist churches have extended their callings from God beyond the four walls of the sanctuary and have adopted early childhood development centers. These centers provide children with an alternative education in safe and Christian learning environments and parents with a greater sense of peace.

Many of these preschools not only serve local church members, but they also reach families and children beyond the doors of the church, connecting new members from their communities along the way.

Buncombe Street United Methodist Church Child Development Center in Greenville is one of these. Home to nearly 200 children, with roughly 80 percent of its students from outside the church, the preschool began as a “Mother’s Day Out” program more than 40 years ago and has transformed into a thriving center for children ranging from 6-week-old infants to elementary school-aged children.

BSUMC CDC Director Alison Lister said the biggest benefit of the program is being able to reach out to so many people. The Greenville community’s continuous growth has led the center to become a target location for preschool education.

“It brings young families into the church and gives back to the community,” Lister said.

Union UMC Preschool and Kindergarten in Irmo tries to do much of the same with its preschool.

“I see the preschool as an extension of our ministry. It offers us the opportunity to provide a place for children to learn and grow,” said the Rev. Wayne Horne, Union pastor.

Parents who enroll their children in these preschools often look for something other than just a safe place to send them while they work. They want their children to receive strong academic preparation, and seek nurturing environments where their children can learn good Christian values.

“Because many families in our state and nation must rely on two incomes, there is a great need for quality and affordable childcare at this age,” said Susan Fennell, director of St. Mark UMC Kids’ World CDC in Greenwood. “Also, it goes without saying that single-parent families need solid options, too; in some cases, even more. Churches, as nonprofit entities, have the potential to meet this need in a unique way.”

Many people believe the benefits of having preschools in churches are two-fold; there is a partnership. Most of the preschools are anchored to the church and serve to bring God’s children closer to Him.

A number of UMC preschools use a curriculum based on the WEE, or Weekday Early Education Learn Curriculum—a system that includes teachings on Judeo-Christian values, biblical truths and the integration of biblical principles. These programs not only foster intellectual development, but also spiritual, emotional and social development.

Another preschool, Washington Street UMC CDC, uses the High Scope Curriculum, where children learn through “active participatory learning.”

“The curriculum is not only faith-based, it is about the whole child,” said Felicia Yockel, director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children-accredited WSUMC CDC. “We’re about everything: their emotional, social, motor skills, language skills.”

Preschool programs like Union’s also try to give teachers the flexibility to build their curriculum around specific learning objectives and the students’ specific needs.

“We do not use a cookie-cutter approach; there is no set curriculum. It is not tailor-made to the entire program,” said Barbara Creswell, Union preschool’s director, noting each teacher is able to tailor their teaching to their children’s learning styles.

In addition to the church, teachers who work in these programs contribute to the continuity and success of the preschools.

“The longevity of the staff makes a big difference. There are many faculty members who have been here more than 20 years,” Creswell said, noting that at Union, many of the faculty members have master’s degrees.

Indeed, in most of these schools, there isn’t a high teacher turnover because people are doing what God called them to do, Lister said.

As Horne said, “Teachers are not paid a lot.” Their work is a sense of calling from God.

These preschools have proven to be integral in the community, as well. Yockel spoke of WSUMC CDC as being one of the few schools in the area with a diverse, good-quality program for children 6 weeks to 5 years old.

“Being in the downtown Columbia area, there are not many centers, and infants need special care,” Yockel said. “There’s a crisis; there’s not enough space for them. They need larger classrooms.”

Whether a safe haven or a way to instill Christian principles in children, UMC preschools play a significant role in providing children with the necessary tools to become spiritually, mentally and physically in tune with themselves, others and God.

“This, by itself, is a sorely needed mission, but more than that, churches can also share and celebrate the vibrancy of Christ, which in turn, spills over into the larger community,” Fennell said. “Here is the heart of the matter, and the greatest benefit of all.”

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