In the two centuries since the first Jesuit schools were established in the United States, Jesuits and their partners in mission have creatively and courageously faced many challenges. Because of their collective efforts, there are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, numerous high schools, including Cristo Rey and Nativity Schools, and even one community college. Arguably, Jesuit education constitutes one of the largest and most effective apostolic missions for the Society of Jesus. The establishment of early childhood educational programs, however, has yet to be undertaken by the Jesuits in our U.S. provinces.
That is changing.
On September 11, 2017, the Loyola Early Learning Center (LELC) opened its doors to 18 two-year-old children from low-income families in Baltimore. Located one block from St. Ignatius Church, this preschool is the brainchild of Fr. William Watters, SJ, who also founded Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and St. Ignatius Loyola Academy in Baltimore. These three schools, also considered “services of faith,” are desperately needed for Maryland’s largest city.
“I am inspired to be sharing in our collective Jesuit mission to serve young people and their families, who come from our city’s impoverished neighborhoods,” said Fr. Watters. “We are trying to provide a quality education that prepares young people from the earliest age through middle and high school, and encourages them through college so they can become productive citizens—men and women who give their time and talent to their city, which needs it desperately.”
Fr. Bill Watters, SJ, oversees the building of the Loyola Early Learning Center (LELC).
Like Cristo Rey and St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, the Loyola Early Learning Center starts at 7:30 a.m. with a prayer—teaching children to “center themselves on God” from an early age. The school day ends at 5:30 p.m. and is in session for 11 months, September through July. In the years ahead, new students will be admitted to LELC, growing to the full complement of pre-K-2 through pre-K-4, with 60 students by September 2019. With two teachers and two aides for each grade, as well as administrative and development staff and a social worker, the preschool will employ approximately 17 people once the three grades are established.
Erica Meadows is the director for the LELC, and is looking forward to being a part of this new endeavor. “The Loyola Early Learning Center will provide a warm, nurturing and caring environment,” she said. “Already when visitors come into the building they comment on how warm and bright our classrooms are. We will provide a place for young children to learn, explore and grow together, thanks to the wonderful donors and scholarship sponsors. We will work with parents and children to create a sense of community and support, and to provide a positive experience for them.”
LELC staff are eager to offer these children a positive experience and teaching them how to "center themselves on God."
LELC will also serve adults, with opportunities for parents to learn more about budgeting, cooking and reading to their children. “Families will be signing a contract and will be investing in the school with time and talent,” explained Fr. Watters.
This school is a longstanding dream of Fr. Watters, who along with Fr. James Casciotti, SJ, pastor of St. Ignatius Church, made it a reality. Fr. Watters sent out proposals to foundations and recruited what he called his “apostles,” 12 donors who each pledged $250,000. He also found 18 donors who each pledged $37,500, covering three years of tuition for the first 18 students. “I am deeply grateful to serve our African-American young people who make up the predominant population of these three Jesuit schools,” Fr. Watters said.
Fr. Casciotti agrees, “The Loyola Early Learning Center is another sign of the commitment of St. Ignatius parish to serve the educational needs of the vulnerable children of Baltimore and their families. The grace of God, the vision and leadership of Fr. Watters, the expertise of dedicated volunteers, and the generosity of many parishioners and other benefactors has made it possible.”
From the looks on their faces the first week, the children seem just as eager as the staff.
As part of the collaborative spirit among Baltimore area ministries, the Loyola Early Learning Center’s staff and its president, Fr. Watters, participated in a recent Jesuit Schools’ Day of Reflection at Loyola Blakefield. The three schools invited LELC’s staff to join them as school number four in the expanding family of Baltimore-area Jesuit schools. LELC teachers and staff were delighted to have the opportunity to share in the day which focused primarily on characteristics of Jesuit schools, especially “Finding God in All Things.”
Surely, a new day is dawning in Jesuit education.