by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — What was once an old convent occupied by Benedictine Sisters now sports bright-colored walls and rings with the laughter of preschool-aged children.
The old convent is now a brand new early education center, where Our Lady of Unity School in Kansas City, Kansas, will hold preschool and kindergarten classes.
The program’s first 3- and 4-year-old students received a warm welcome Aug. 23 at the school founded by principal Nancy Butters and director of early education Angela Rockers.
“We wanted to give our parishioners and the Catholic families in this community an opportunity to put their kids in a preschool that’s faith-based,” said Butters.
“We will be able to provide [them] the academic curriculum but, more importantly, that foundation for them to be able to join in prayer services and Mass,” she added.
The building, known as St. Scholastica Hall, now has a kindergarten room in the lower level with a preschool room in the upper level.
Rockers, previously a fifth-grade teacher at the school, will be the sole preschool teacher and will have help from a para who is bilingual and will bounce between the kindergarten classroom and the preschool.
The idea for the early education center originated with Butters who, from the time she started at Our Lady of Unity four years ago, wanted to make several updates to the school.
“We are the only Catholic Wyandotte County school that didn’t have a preschool,” she said.
The fundraising efforts of staff members like Janet Schlake, development director at Our Lady of Unity, were instrumental in making the dream a reality, said Butters.
Schlake raised over $100,000 that went toward the building’s remodel.
The donations, matched with the construction work of Butters’ husband Bob, transformed the old convent into a beautiful building ideal for young students.
“I think classroom environment is one of the most important things in education,” said Rockers.
“If a child can feel comfortable, at home, excited and relaxed all at the same time, then they have an optimal learning experience,” she said.
According to Butters, Rockers is the perfect person to make the first year a positive one.
“She is a very organized and meticulous kind of person,” said Butters, “and starting up a new program is a big job.”
Rockers has already demonstrated her dedication by working alongside Butters all summer to prepare for the students’ arrival.
The pair had their work cut out for them, thanks to the generosity of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, Our Lady of Unity’s sister parish in the Companions in Faith program.
St. Michael parishioners were asked to donate items to the new preschool, and they quickly responded with a plethora of supplies.
Several parishioners even plan on volunteering at the preschool throughout the school year.
Their generosity has shown Butters and Rockers what a unique relationship the two parishes share.
“Starting a new program like this is very expensive,” said Butters. “We certainly appreciate the donations and the resources they have provided.”
“Having the networking and the relationship is what the Companions in Faith is all about,” she added.
Butters, Rockers and their families meticulously sifted through the supplies as they set up the classroom with their students in mind.
“In being selective, we’re telling the students that they’re important and they’re special, and we want their place to be special,” said Butters.
“We want them to know that they deserve it and we are willing to provide it for them,” she said.
Butters and Rockers have already received encouraging feedback from parishioners about the preschool.
“Knowing that a youthful program [is here] brought a very excited vibe into the church,” said Rockers. “So hopefully, that will trickle out into the community.”
But Rockers is most focused on providing a strong foundation of faith for these young students.
“For me as a teacher, [the best part] is being able to provide opportunities for them to grow spiritually, and educating not just their mind but the whole person,” she said.
Butters has high hopes for the long-term impact the school will have.
“When you go into education, you hope to change the world,” said Butters.
Opening the preschool reminds her of the story about a boy standing on the beach, throwing starfish back into the ocean.
“A man comes and says, ‘Why are you doing that? There’s no way you can save all these starfish,’” said Butters. “But the boy says, ‘I saved that one, and I saved that one.’”
“We all go into this thinking, hoping and praying that we’ll be able to make a difference,” said Butters. “I suppose it’s yet to be seen the difference we may make.
“But that’s the goal.”