The importance of the Steepletown Preschool is more than teaching children. It serves as a visible lesson to the local Catholic Church and larger community on the teachings of the US Catholic Bishops. In the fall of 2018 the US Catholic Bishops approved a pastoral letter on racism called Open Wide Our Hearts. In it they write: “To work at ending racism, we need to engage the world and encounter others- to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view. Knowing that the Lord has taken the divine initiative by loving us first, we can boldly go forward, reaching out to others. We must invite into dialogue those we ordinarily would not seek out. We must work to form relationships with those we might regularly try to avoid. This demands that we go beyond ourselves, opening our minds and hearts to value and respect the experiences of those who have been harmed by the evil of racism. “
The Steepletown Preschool lifts the bishops’ words from the page and puts them into practice. Currently 90% of the children attending the Steepletown Preschool identify as African-American/black, Hispanic/latinx, or multi-racial. And so what is taking place at the Steepletown Preschool is a powerful platform for continued dialogue and learning that can lead to a more just and equitable society. It happens when the 8th graders from Holy Spirit Church regularly visit and interact with the preschoolers, or when a healthy eating class for preschool families has participants exchanging various ethnic recipes. These are two of countless examples that take place at the preschool.
Steepletown is hosting an upcoming event called “Open Wider Our Hearts-A Community Response to the US Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Racism.” This is being held on the evening of March 4th. The event will begin with a free community meal catered by Chef RG, followed by a discussion with Lisa Knight on the bishops’ pastoral letter. Ms. Knight, who is the VP & Chief Operating Office of the Urban League, does community trainings on implicit bias and brings her lived experience and perspective to the discussion. To attend this event, please go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/open-wider-our-hearts-tickets-95471105647
What started off as a one room school house has turned into a viable child development center. The Steepletown Preschool started in 2013 with the blessings of Monsignor Stasker, opening a single classroom in the former St. Adalbert School building which is now referred to as the Basilica Center. Today the Steepletown Preschool has five classrooms, two which are 4 year-old classrooms funded through the State’s Great Start Readiness Program, two 3 year-old classrooms funded through the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, and one Early Head Start classroom for toddlers, which is federally funded.
In 2010 Steepletown was invited to be part of a newly formed collaboration of community-based organizations to address the lack of opportunities for quality, early childhood education. Under the leadership of Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, the Director of Early Childhood Education Department at Aquinas College, this work became the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative. One of the driving motivations for this work was a newspaper article in April of 2010 that clearly demonstrated the educational challenges of children growing up in specific inner-city neighborhoods of Grand Rapids- only 15% were assessing as ready-to-learn when entering Kindergarten. Something needed to be done.
Steepletown’s work as part of the ELNC has flipped this script. In fact, for the past few years, nearly 95% of the Steepletown preschoolers are testing ready for Kindergarten. It is well documented that the early educational success of children significantly impacts high school graduation rates and later economic security; it also reduces the “pipeline to prison” phenomenon where studies have documented that a 3rd grader’s reading level is a strong indicator of future incarceration. As the bishops stated: “Love should then move us to take what we learn from our encounters and examine where society continues to fail our brothers and sisters, or where it perpetuates inequity, and seek to address those problems.”