When Annie Murphy ‘99 drops off her two-year-old at St. Joseph the Worker, she knows her daughter will be engaged in enriching activities in a loving environment from the moment she arrives.
The room Molly will call home base for the day is filled with age-appropriate toys, centers and academic enrichment tools that will support her intellectual and emotional growth as part of a well-rounded curriculum, helping to lay the groundwork for elementary school and beyond. Caring staff members read stories, play games and sing songs, creating a fun and enriching learning environment. The walls of her classroom are adorned with imaginative artwork created by Molly and her friends.
For these reasons and many more, Annie Murphy ‘99 and her husband Marcus go to work with calm minds knowing their daughter is safe, cared for, engaged in learning, and loved.
Murphy appreciates the special efforts staff make to bring lessons to life. “Recently, the two-year-old class completed a unit about community helpers,” she explained. “Families were encouraged to send letters to St. Joe’s in the mail so the children would be exposed to the important role a mailman plays in our community. This is just one example of how the staff incorporates fun and meaningful activities into our child’s day,” she said.
Murphy’s experiences at St. Joseph the Worker are common throughout Holy Family’s Early Childhood program, which helps draw students to and supports the K-12 program. With five centers all situated in school buildings, including St. Joseph the Worker, Holy Ghost, Resurrection, St. Anthony/Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Columbkille, they offer unique amenities. Full-sized gymnasiums and large outdoor playgrounds provide space for year-round physical activity and programming geared towards gross motor skill development.
“With so much space, we have different play areas for each developmental level,” said Joann O’Connell, Holy Family’s early childhood coordinator.
Holy Family’s culture of faith also takes root in the early childhood program. Preschool and pre-K children attend Mass and prayer is woven into their day.
“Families often tell us, ‘Tommy won’t let us start dinner unless we say a prayer!’” O’Connell said. “I think our parents really appreciate that culture we bring,” she added.
A close-knit Community
O’Connell believes being part of the larger Holy Family school system is a great benefit of the early childhood program. “The number one benefit is the support we have. Not only from the central office but with five centers, our directors can support each other. Our licensing consultant says that makes us a strong unit because she can make a suggestion at one site and five sites benefit.
“We regularly bring our center directors together to share ideas and strategies to solve problems. Everyone has their strengths and working together as a system, we make each other stronger,” O’Connell explained.
Another benefit O’Connell noted is the connectedness between Holy Family early childhood centers and the schools. “The children in our school-based centers participate in school events, assemblies, faith family activities and Masses. So, they’re part of the school community before they begin Kindergarten.”
Early childhood teachers also maintain close relationships with school teachers. So, if a child is really excelling in preschool, his Kindergarten teacher will be ready to personalize his learning experience to meet his individual needs.
“For the school-aged kids, we’re here in the building all day. We know what’s been going on and how their day is going. Our staff really gets to know the kids,” Joann continued. “Many of them came to us for preschool or as infants, so we’re already family!”
This connectedness also translates into convenience for families. St. Joseph the Worker and Holy Ghost, the system’s two full-service childcare centers, remain open on all non-school days, whether they are weather-related or scheduled days out. That means any family with children enrolled in the other three elementary schools has an option for childcare when schools are closed.
All four Murphy children attended St. Joe’s for infant/toddler care. The three older children stayed for preschool and pre-K and now attend Our Lady of Guadalupe, taking part in the school’s wrap-around care services. Each day after school, the children are provided a healthy snack, quiet time to complete homework and opportunities for organized games and play.
“Our children were fully prepared with the skills they needed to be successful in Kindergarten,” Murphy said. “They all transitioned smoothly, even going from an English curriculum to full Spanish immersion.
“As they have gotten older in wrap-around care, the staff has been so accommodating to meet our children’s needs. For instance, our fifth-grader completes service hours after school. She can often be found helping prepare materials for children’s liturgy or assisting teachers in the classroom.
“Further, if children need additional support with homework or more quiet time to work, the staff makes sure those needs are fulfilled,” Murphy said.
As the largest employer of early childhood associates and teachers in the region – with 143 full- and part-time employees at the system’s five centers – staffing can be a challenge for the program.
Fortunately, the centers benefit from several student workers, who in return benefit from the experience they gain working with the children.
Wahlert Catholic High School junior Ellie Timmerman aspires to become a pediatrician someday. She says her goal is to help children live happy and healthy lives. “I decided to work at St. Joe’s because I love working with kids,” said Timmerman. “It’s such an amazing feeling when kids run to greet me as I walk into work.”
The experience gives Timmerman perspective on her future career. “This job enables me to see how children act when they are feeling healthy, and alternatively, I see the changes in their moods when something goes awry,” said Timmerman.
Timmerman also appreciates the opportunity to serve as a positive role model for young children. “Kids are smart,” she said. “Being around them almost every day, I realize they pick up on very small details and signals. That’s why I think it’s important for children to receive quality childcare from an early age; it can have a major influence on their psychological development.”
Filling a Community Need
It’s no secret that Dubuque faces a shortage of quality child care services. The impact this shortfall has on the area’s workforce was documented in a 2016 community needs assessment conducted by the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and other non-profit, economic development and education officials.
With more than 900 Dubuque-area children enrolled in Holy Family Early Childhood programs – including daycare services, school-aged wrap-around care and preschool/pre-K programming – Holy Family serves as the area’s largest early childhood provider and one of the leading programs in the state.
St. Joseph the Worker alone serves 194 children, with 150 in the building at any given time. Holy Ghost serves another 130. Demand is highest for infant care, partly because of the high ratio of staff to children necessary for the age group.
St. Joseph the Worker takes three new infants under the age of four months every month. Right now, they are fully enrolled through February 2020. “We always tell families, ‘we need to be the first to know you’re pregnant,’” O’Connell joked. “We won’t tell anyone!”
The Community Foundation study found that nearly half of respondents reported turning down a job or working fewer hours because of childcare responsibilities. Recognizing the important role Holy Family plays in that equation, system leaders regularly evaluate opportunities to increase capacity to help fulfill the need.
One such opportunity is being explored on the Resurrection campus. A study being conducted by the parish will evaluate the feasibility of financing for a new Faith Formation Center to serve both the parish and school communities, replacing the aging school building. To help fulfill a long-identified need for childcare services on Dubuque’s west end, the proposed redevelopment also includes a full-service infant through pre-K child care center.
Annie Murphy ‘99 and her family are among many to express how blessed they feel to have a service like Holy Family Early Childhood available in our community. “Holy Family’s early childhood program truly embraces the mission of developing the whole child, caring for their social and emotional well-being, as well as delivering solid academic instruction in a faith-based community,” she said.