Lutheran congregations serving communities through preschool education
Parents’ desire to provide a values-based learning/care environment for young children motivates many Twin Cities Lutheran congregations to sponsor preschool programs. In some cases, young children are dropped off at these centers for a stay of ten or more hours per weekday. That’s more weekday waking hours than many of these children spend with their parents.
Among congregations with preschool and early learning programs are: Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior, Min-nesota, and Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Bloom-ington, Minnesota (both ELCA).
In many cases the learning programs attract parents from the community who are not members of the congregations. While the learning centers clearly provide a good environment for their young students, they can be an outreach ministry for the congregation as well. Though it must be remembered that just because a preschool program is housed in a church doesn’t mean that values-based learning is provided.
Children in the programs may be as young as a few weeks old or may be students in accredited kindergarten programs or even special education classes. The learning can be as practical as “potty training” or as spiritual as a brief worship service.
At Transfiguration Lutheran Church (TLC), the Early Learning Center was organized in 1985. The center is currently licensed for 75 children.
Two preschool classes operate the same as if they were in a separate preschool. A kindergarten teacher is accredited and serves children of parents who prefer a smaller class size than available at a public school. The early learning center operates two buses — to deliver kids to and from a nearby public school if they are partial-day students at the learning center. The buses are also used for frequent field trips.
The learning center also has its own cook who prepares breakfast, lunch, and snacks for the kids. Church staff members conduct a children’s worship service every other week.
The Transfiguration center also moves groups of students along as a class so children are with the same classmates year after year.
Barb Wigstadt, director of the learning center, has been with the program since 1989 and is only the second director in the school’s 22-year history. One of her daughters is a teacher in the six-classroom center. Barb says that most of the children enrolled come from the community and that several families have joined Transfiguration as a result of the learning center.
Of her philosophy, Barb says, “We’re here to serve Christ. If we can get that into the children’s heart early, that’s our mission.” She continued, “We have to answer to Christ for these little children; we can’t settle for mediocrity.” She said a normal preschool might have children about two-and-a-half hours a day, when the Transfiguration center interacts with many children 10 to 11 hours a day.
At Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior, the co-directors of the preschool have more than 20 years of working together with this large-enrollment center that has been in operation 40 years.
The preschool has 230 children enrolled, some of them for either morning or afternoon sessions. Fourteen teachers work with children from the community and the congregation. Several of the teachers have between 15 and 20 years with the program. The co-directors, Debbie Zumbach Rengers and Linda McKinney, spend half their days on administrative duties and half on teaching.
Unusual for a preschool, Mount Calvary has 24 special education slots. Early childhood special ed teachers from the Minnetonka school district conduct that phase of the expansive program.
Debbie Rengers’ background includes a masters degree in speech pathology. After raising a family she went back to school to be licensed in early childhood and family education. She came to Mount Calvary as a teacher and later moved into the co-director position. Linda McKinney’s story is similar. She earned a degree in special education and returned to school to become licensed in early childhood. She also started as a teacher at Mount Calvary and moved into the co-director position.
Debbie and Linda say the majority of the children in the program stay from toddler stage on to kindergarten. The program at Mount Calvary includes a licensed pre-kindergarten program. And the co-directors note that families tend to stay with the program, sending younger siblings into the program once they have had other children enrolled.
Carla Erickson, a mother who currently has a fourth child in the Transfiguration Early Learning Center, says, “Class size in public schools is at least twice that of the TLC kindergarten. We have found that it takes Zach’s teachers almost half the year to get to know his strengths and weaknesses because they have at least 20 other kids they are trying to get to know as well. The size of the class here at TLC allows Karen [Wenge] to provide each child with a significant amount of individual attention.”
Those interested in knowing more about the Mount Calvary program may call either Debbie Rengers or Linda McKinney at 952/474-5542 or check the congregation’s web site: www.mountcalvary.org and select the children’s activities link. For more information on the Transfiguration Lutheran Church Early Learning Center, call Barb Wigstadt at 952/884-7955 or send an e-mail to email@example.com or check the Web site: www.tlcelc.org.