By George P. Matysek Jr.
Children who entered kindergarten at St. Mary School in Hagerstown at the end of August embarked on a bit of an oceanic adventure.
“I tell the children we are going on a fishing expedition,” said Dana Hilmoe, an educator at St. Mary School for nine years and a kindergarten teacher for seven.
“I find all the places they need to know – the bathrooms, the art room, the music room – and we do a scavenger hunt,” she explained. “It’s a lot of fun. It helps the children get to know the school.”
The playful exercise is just one way Hilmoe and her longtime teaching assistant, Suzanne Cochran, try to put learning in reach for children who may initially feel uncomfortable or unsure of themselves.
“When they begin kindergarten, it’s really their first introduction to a structured school environment,” Hilmoe said. “Just learning how to come into the building, where to put their belongings, how to get through the lunch line – it’s completely new to them.”
Much has changed in the last two decades at the primary level.
Today, most children come to kindergarten with some experience in pre-school or daycare. Most already know their alphabet and some can even read.
“Most of them know their way around a computer,” Hilmoe said.
For the last three years, St. Mary’s has included a SMART board in the kindergarten classroom.
“It’s amazing how much the children can do on it,” Hilmoe said. “They learn very quickly.”
St. Mary’s employs a very hands-on approach to learning, according to Hilmoe. Most importantly, she said, faith is infused throughout the curriculum.
“One of the advantages to being in a Catholic school, whether we’re talking about science or reading or math, is that we are allowed and have that ability to talk about the expectations of the faith,” Hilmoe said.
“We can weave God throughout the day,” Cochran said. “That’s my reason for being here.”
Both Hilmoe and Cochran are parishioners of nearby St. Ann in Hagerstown. They each have four children, all of whom graduated from St. Mary School and went on to St. Maria Goretti High School, also in Hagerstown.
Cochran called it a joy to watch youngsters transform over the course of a year from sometimes-timid students into confident ones.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said.
Tips for parents of kindergarteners
Hilmoe and Cochran offer these tips for parents of children entering kindergarten:
• Send your child to bed early for a good night’s sleep
• Make sure your child starts each day with a good breakfast
• Be excited about what your child is learning
• Encourage your child to be his or her best
• Whenever possible, volunteer in school and get involved