This year at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, 8650 N. Shannon Road, the Feast of the Epiphany was marked not by a journey of Three Wise Men, but by 20 preschoolers celebrating the journey of education.

On Monday, the parish opened a full-day preschool, which is the first phase of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School. Grades kindergarten through three will begin in the fall, with a new grade added each year until the school has preschool through eighth grades, said Principal Suzanne Shadonix. There is already a waiting list, with parents who have just given birth calling to reserve spots for their children in 2006.

The school's opening is one sign of the growth of Catholics in the Northwest over the past few years. It is the second Catholic preschool to open this year, following the October startup of a preschool at St. Odilia Parish, 7570 N. Paseo del Norte. There are currently 26 children in two preschool classes and the parish hopes to open a kindergarten there in the fall with the possibility of adding first through fifth grades in the future.

Immaculate Heart Academy, 410 E. Magee Road, is the only other Catholic school in the area, serving 4-year-olds through 12th graders. It is independent, unaffiliated with any particular parish, and operated by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Representatives from both parishes said the idea for starting Catholic schools on parish grounds came directly from parishioners.

"Parents have been asking us for years if we would ever consider having a school," said Teresa Bier, director of religious education at St. Odilia's and acting principal of the preschool. "We begin finding out that our population was being taken care of by preschools at St. Andrews Presbyterian, Casas Adobes (Baptist) and St. Mark Methodist churches and it seemed we should provide for our own if possible."

To that end, the parish raised money for a $1.6 million single-story education center that houses eight classrooms, a library and administrative offices. They began fund-raising two years ago and finished construction this past fall.

"I knew as soon as the parish started talking about it that I would want my children to go there," said Gloria Reynolds, who enrolled her 4-year-old at St. Odilia's school in October. "I went to Catholic schools and I appreciate the values involved. I'm impressed with what I would call the touchy-feely things at the school -- the warmth and the spiritual things -- while my husband has been impressed with the academics, with what our son is learning. There are little things that mean a lot to me as a Catholic parent that he has gotten there. Like on Christmas, he didn't wake up just interested in his presents, he wanted to know if Baby Jesus was in our nativity scene and talk about Jesus' birthday."

St. Odilia's preschool serves 3 through 5 year olds; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton restricts their preschool to 4 and 5 year olds.

Shadonix said the 4,500 families at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton "have been 100 percent behind" the idea of a Catholic school at the parish. The complex will be much larger than St. Odilia's school and cost approximately $6.5 million.

"You cannot build something like this without complete support," she said. "This parish is extraordinary, they have decided the education of children is so important they are coming together and doing this. And they went about this the right way I think. Once they had paid off their church building seven years ago, they decided it was time to … build a school. They took a survey to see if there was support and the next step was a prayer campaign -- every ministry prayed for the success of the fund raising and construction before every meeting of that ministry. The financial support came after that."

Construction on the first phase of the school - which encompasses the preschool building, playground, gym and multi-purpose athletic field - started in September 2002 and was completed last month. Windows in the doors forming a cross highlight the entrance to the preschool rooms.

"I asked the architects to have a special window somewhere in the school so that it would be obvious when you walked into the rooms that this is a sacred space," Shadonix said. "This is not just because we are a religious school, but because teaching children is a sacred endeavor."

The second phase of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School is currently a 100-foot-by-75-foot, 16-foot-deep hole in the ground just north of the church's sanctuary. By next fall it will be a two-story building housing the administrative offices and grades one through six. The third phase will be a two-story building east of the second building, where parish religious education offices are now housed. Those offices will be razed to build the school's media center, science lab, art and music rooms, as well as seventh and eighth grade classrooms, and should be finished by 2005.

Both of the two-story buildings will include basements for storage and use by the parish's youth group, Knights of Columbus fraternity and other parish groups.

Tuition at both preschools depends on how frequently a child attends school. At St. Odilia, there are two-to-five-day options for children to attend the 9 a.m.-noon school day. For full-time attendance (five days, 9 a.m.- noon), tuition is $270 per month for parishioners and $290 per month for non-parishioners. In addition, before and after school care is offered with a less academic-focused, but "still structured" program, for $3 per hour, said Bier.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton charges $495 per month for the full-time preschool option, which runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. For students who attend only part time -- daily from 8 to 11 a.m. -- tuition is $255 per month. After school care is also available for $3 per hour. Although both schools are open to non-parishioners and non-Catholics, if enrollment spaces are limited, parishioners will get top priority and, once the elementary schools open, parishioners will get a tuition discount.

Building a parish school is always a challenge for the pastor involved, and many refrain from taking it on. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Pastor Thomas J. Millane said he didn't think of the trouble involved when following his parishioners' lead in opening a school.

"Everything in life is a headache," Millane said, "but some things are worth it. I think so many people take the path of least resistance. This school has been a dream of mine, perhaps because I was deprived of a Catholic education. I think this is going to be wonderful and it came from the parishioners, they are the ones who asked for it and they support it and help me."

Church representatives and parents alike said opening Catholic schools in the Northwest is not meant as a criticism of the academic quality of the local public schools.

Annette Zimmerman is the mother of six children. Her 5-year-old daughter, Aubrey, started school at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on Monday, the first of her children to go to a Catholic preschool. Of her other children, two are at public universities, one attends Salpointe Catholic High School and one is home-schooled.

"My two oldest children went to schools in the Marana (Unified) School District," Zimmerman said. "They received a good education and they had good teachers there, but there were some things that concerned us. I would like them to be in a place where there is a clearly defined sense of right and wrong. The public schools try to do that, but they are restricted (by state and federal laws). The public schools we've been in have a good academic program, but we see academics as just one leg of the developmental stool. Catholic education deals with the emotional and spiritual legs as well. I feel like it is more wholesome and deals with the whole child."

Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, co-adjutor bishop of the Diocese of Tucson, agreed.

"I think, more and more, parents are concerned that schools prepare their children not only academically, but also spiritually with values they can live," Kicanas said. "That has always been the strength of Catholic education, that we are able to teach values as well as provide sound academics. This is why more parents are being drawn to Catholic schools and parishes are able to support them."

Shadonix said parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton never entertained building a school that began with kindergarten.

"They consider preschool as the foundation," she said. "They wanted the very beginning of (a child's) formal education to be in the Catholic model, which is all encompassing, focusing on the whole child, including the spiritual and moral dimensions. Religion is a subject at the school, but it also will permeate everything we do."

For example, during science classes, the children might observe clouds for a time, charting their movement in the sky and learning the different types of clouds and how the wind moves them, Shadonix said. Then they would reflect on what they saw, "recognizing God's hand in it."

"If you just look at the world - geology and astronomy and the human body - looking at the science of it, the engineering of it, is so magnificent," the principal said. "There is that component of 'Somebody did this. Some incredibly intelligent master engineer, and he did it before we could discover how magnificent he really is.'"

Another example of integrating religion into curriculum would be in social studies, the principal said. Each day, students will learn about a particular saint of the Catholic Church. During that time, they will examine the geography of the country in which that saint was born, the customs of that country and the history during the time the saint lived.

"It is really a school of (teaching method) blends," she said. "We'll combine creative curriculum, Montessori learning and pre-academic techniques to teach the whole child."

Bier said instruction at St. Odilia preschool is primarily developmentally focused, "along with helping them know who they are, who God is and how we fit into our families."

"We build on what parents have been doing with their children at home," she said. "Like any good program it is both developmental and academic, but we really believe children have to be developmentally ready for academics. They need to have fine motor skills before you put a pencil in their hand. Many times we push reading before children even have the left-to-right eye movement down. Children learn through play."

Pastor Richard E. Troutman said the philosophy behind St. Odilia's preschool is the belief that "the foundation of a child's entire learning experience is our Christian faith."

"We want the children to develop their unique relationship with God," he said. "Our curriculum builds on each child's state of development with their interests incorporated into their learning experience … (it is) a developmental program and a program of academic readiness."

As the school at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton expands, Shadonix said the curriculum will include a character education program and three languages.

"If a child attends the school from 4 years through eighth grade, she will learn sign language in her first two years here, Spanish from first through sixth grade and Latin in seventh and eighth grades," she explained.

In addition, each of the school's classrooms will be equipped with a SmartBoard, which looks like a traditional 72-inch white board, but is also connected to the Internet.

"You can use it like a white board and a chalk board, but also as a computer," Shadonix said. "We can download things immediately from the Internet to the SmartBoard, and the kids use their fingers as a mouse - it is completely interactive. If a child is sick, we can literally just press a button and send the homework home via e-mail to him. This school is a blend of the traditional Catholic model and educational practices we all know work, but this is a 21st Century school, so we know we have to be up-to-date."

Shadonix said parishioners have already asked for a high school, but there isn't land on the parish's complex to build a high school. However, that interest - and the waiting list for grades yet to be opened - demonstrate to her that Catholic education is a priority for many parents.

"I think the fact that we are able to educate the whole child, that we don't have to separate spirituality from the rest of learning, is very important to people. And the Catholic model, with its strong family atmosphere, has always drawn people," she said.

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