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A place for little lambs and shepherds
The diocese’s newest preschool opens.
Dave Borowski | Catholic Herald
Dave Borowski | Catholic Herald
St. Rita preschool staff, including (from left): Grace Johnson, Emily Coulter and Megan Rolla arrange small replica church vessels in a child-sized sanctuary in preparation for opening day at the new preschool in Alexandria.

On Sept. 6, a new Catholic preschool will join more than 25 diocesan programs currently operating in the Arlington Diocese. St. Rita School in Alexandria will offer classes for children ages 3-5.

“Little Lambs” is the morning program for 3-year-olds. Parents will have the choice of a two- or three-days-a-week schedule. The older children, “Little Shepherds,” will have an afternoon session and will be offered a three-, four- or five-days-a-week program. Twenty-nine students have enrolled in the program so far.

Principal Mary Pat Schlickenmaier said the planning for the preschool began last summer after families requested it.

Father Daniel N. Gee, pastor of St. Rita Parish, even helped to fence in the preschool playground and assemble the playground equipment.

The school will use the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd method for religious education. It’s an approach to the religious formation of children that’s based on the belief that God and the child are already in a relationship. It’s the job of the adult teacher to protect and nurture this relationship. The method presents age-appropriate biblical and liturgical themes for children to use to help understand the mysteries of the Catholic Faith.

Three teachers were hired for the preschool: Emily Coulter, Grace Johnson and Megan Rolla. Schlickenmaier said that the catechist training program for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was extensive — eight hours a day for two weeks, much of it at the Siena Academy in Great Falls. Rolla, the catechist trained in the Good Shepherd approach, will train the other teachers.

“All the teachers are active Catholics and will bring their faith to the classroom,” said Schlickenmaier.

She would eventually like to extend the catechesis program to the elementary school.

The catechesis was developed by Sofia Cavalletti, an Italian biblical scholar, and is based on the education principles of Maria Montessori, a devout Catholic and founder of the Montessori method of learning.

There’s a special room in the preschool called an atrium. It’s a term used by Montessori to designate a transitional place between classroom and church.

Cavalletti wrote in her book The Religious Potential of the Child, “(The atrium) is a place where the child comes to know the great realities of life as a Christian, but also, and above all, a place where the child begins to live these realities in meditation and prayer.”

All the replica church vessels in the atrium are child-sized.

“Everything is on a small scale,” said Schlickenmaier.

There’s also an element of mystery involved in the atrium contents. Things are hidden until revealed by the teachers.

Schlickenmaier and the teachers are looking forward to opening day and the challenge of teaching young children about the Faith.

“Our goal is to provide an authentically Catholic preschool,” said Schlickenmaier.

There will be an open house for interested parents and students Sept. 1 at the St. Rita Parish Center from 10 to 11 a.m. Parents and children will have a chance to meet the preschool teachers.

Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde will bless the preschool Sept. 20.

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