On November 5, St. Paul Lutheran School will open its doors to welcome prospective families. Parents who are considering the best school for their child will tour the school and talk with current St. Paul families. Choosing the right school for your child can be overwhelming. There are so many things to consider – class size, teaching methods, parochial or not, and even the location of the school all factor into the choice.
St. Paul Lutheran School is often referred to as a hidden gem. In actuality, it’s hiding in plain sight. Attached to St. Paul Lutheran Church, the “triangle church” on I-30 at Summit, St. Paul Lutheran School has been quietly and brilliantly educating students from preschool through eighth grade for over 50 years.
I recently sat down with Diane McCamant (first grade teacher), Teri Bielefeldt (kindergarten teacher), Sharon Messmann (Excel teacher), Scott Browning (principal), and Katherine Curtis (the new community relations director) to talk about St. Paul’s Early Childhood Program and their approach to literacy. The Early Childhood program covers pre-kindergarten through second grade, and it is here that students are taught what will become the foundations of their education.
In the beginning, a child learns to read. After about second grade, the child must read to learn. Therefore, laying the foundation for strong reading and comprehension is vital to a student’s success. St. Paul uses the Saxon Phonics and Spelling program, designed to engage students with a comprehensive, multisensory approach to learning to read. Sounds become letters, letters become words, and words become sentences. But even with such a well-structured approach, reading can seem like an unconquerable hurdle at times for some students.
In our conversation, both Diane and Teri emphasized that their goal is not only to teach their students to read, it is to make every child feel like they can read. Diane said, “The classes are small enough [12 children per class in Early Childhood] that we can catch anyone who might be struggling… We really know our kids.” The smaller class size allows teachers to give more personal attention to their students, and their students flourish as a result.
St. Paul goes the extra mile to make reading fun. The Early Childhood classrooms are full of nooks and crannies for students to snuggle in to read. Be it a reading loft, a boat, or a corner filled with cushions, students are encouraged to find a cozy place to read.
Students also learn the importance of reading aloud. With the B.A.R.K. (Be a Reading Kid) program, students get to read aloud to the church’s two therapy dogs, Pax and Phoebe. These canine bibliophiles love to hear stories, and the students often choose books that they think the dogs will appreciate. Pre-kindergarten students are paired with a fifth-grade Reading Buddy who models how fun reading really can be. In the fall and spring, the Early Childhood classes participate in the Read Around, in which they go to different teacher’s rooms to hear stories connected to a theme. Last year, one of the Read Arounds featured the If You Give a… books by Laura Numeroff; in each classroom, the students got the sweet treat featured in that particular book. Yum!
While the Early Childhood teachers make learning to read fun, there are some students who might need a bit of extra help. This is where the Excel program comes into play. Reading Specialist Sharon Messmann uses a multi-disciplinary approach to help students for whom reading hasn’t quite clicked yet. She said, “If there is a gap [in reading skills], it’s easier to close in first grade.” Teri said that the teachers also benefit from the Excel program; they incorporate many of Sharon’s techniques into their classrooms. “It’s a seamless transition for the kids between the Excel program and their class, and every student benefits.”
While the approach to reading mechanics is very impressive, what I love about St. Paul is that their students are surrounded with literature. From the newly refurbished and extremely inviting library to the classrooms that are full of books of all reading levels, a St. Paul student lives and learns among books, and the Birthday Book program helps ensure this. On a student’s birthday, their parents give a book to the library, and the student’s name, grade and special message is printed on a bookplate. “It’s exciting for the kids to see the names of their friends,” said Katherine. “It makes the book that much more special.”
Principal Browning is justly proud of St. Paul’s Early Childhood program. “We’re laying very strong, very deep foundations… these are super-strong building blocks. We want to give them confidence and, more importantly, joy in learning.”