After nearly four months of construction and consolidation, Billings Catholic Schools opened the doors Monday to its new early-childhood education program center.
While the little red building on Custer Avenue is reminiscent of an old one-room schoolhouse, it represents a new future for early-childhood education for the school system, said Bruce Knudsen, school board member and head of the early education task force.
“Our early-education program is an important part of Billings Catholic Schools,” Knudsen said. “The new center will allow us to better focus our resources to have the best possible program for our kids.”
The building, which sits adjacent to St. Francis Primary and the Holy Rosary Parish, previously served as office space. The remodeled building now accommodates a learning environment for 39 students, pre-kindergarten care and afterschool care ages 3 to 12 years. The center is full to capacity with a wait list of about 17 students.
Students on Monday were excited to share their thoughts about their new schoolhouse. One student said she loved the colorful walls and open space, while another he was excited about the new toys and puzzles.
The three classrooms are painted with a palette of bright colors and the walls are lined with shelves filled with books, puzzles, games, toys and arts and crafts supplies.
A study area in the back of the building is designated for afterschool students to concentrate on homework.
“The building renovations were designed to fulfill the needs of our students,” Knudsen said. “But we also focused on creating a space they would be excited to come into — a real feeling of being alive with great energy.”
Knocked-down walls, widened doorways, painted walls and new flooring — the renovations were also part of a major overhaul of the early-childhood education program.
In 2009, the program began to lose money and attendance while operating costs jumped. A task force was formed, and after years of evaluation, the school system made a decision in May to combine its four preschool and day care centers around town to one location.
“We were searching for solutions of how to make the program more successful,” Knudsen said. “But it was more than just trying to get away from a troubled program. We were seeking ways to improve it and make it the best we can.”
Karen Petermann, St. Francis Primary principal and director of early-childhood education, said the program is integral because it is the foundation of students’ catholic education.
“Our goal is to provide a high-quality education from the ground up, all the way through high school,” Petermann said. “The consolidation will help us foster a smooth transition for students from preschool into kindergarten. It will also strengthen the program’s lesson planning and programming.”
Sue Saks, the program manager, said the program is designed specifically to meet the children’s developmental needs. Groups of students are stationed for 20-minute intervals at program blocks that include story time, arts and crafts, singing, games, dramatic play and hands-on learning activities.
System president Harold Olson said the management of facilities and operations will be more effective and efficiently managed at one site, allowing teachers and staff to focus on the education and care of the students.
Before the consolidation, the early-childhood program was staffed by 39 people, Olson said. At the new center, the program has a reduced staff of 12, six of whom are full-time.
The primary modification of the program is that it no longer provides infant care or care to students who are not enrolled in the Billings Catholic Schools system.
School officials declined to say how much the renovation project cost, but said the amount did not come out of the general operating budget and was, in part, funded by the Monsignor Gergen Trust Fund and from the sale of assets from previous ECE locations.
Knudsen said that while the task force entrusted with evaluating the program dissolved last week, the education committee will continue to evaluate the program and make improvements or changes as necessary.
“We constantly look at both long- and short-term goals,” he said. “Our mission is to provide the best possible care and education to our students that we can.”