By Mike Gabriele
Baltimore has always been a major hub of Jesuit education. From Loyola University and Loyola Blakefield to Cristo Rey High School and St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, the Jesuits have a long-standing tradition in Central Maryland.
Fr. William Watters, SJ, a former pastor at St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore and founder of both St. Ignatius Loyola Academy and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, was also the impetus and inspiration for Baltimore’s newest Jesuit-inspired school, a preschool: the Loyola Early Learning Center (LELC). With a similar mission to those of Cristo Rey and St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, the LELC was specifically established to assist lower-income families. “I am inspired to be sharing in our collective Jesuit mission to serve young people and their families who come from our city’s impoverished neighborhoods,” said Fr. Watters. “We offer them a challenging and quality education that transforms their lives.”
Even as young as two years old, the Loyola Early Learning Center teaches children to center themselves on God.
The LELC officially opened to 18 2-year-old children on Sept. 11, 2017. Over the next few years, the school will grow to include pre-K-2 through pre-K-4, with 60 students by September 2019.
Fr. William Watters, SJ, founder and president of the Loyola Early Learning Center, with one of its first students and her mom.
Erica Meadows is LELC’s director and is glad to be a part of this new endeavor. “The Loyola Early Learning Center provides a warm, nurturing and caring environment,” she said. “When visitors come into the building, they comment on how warm and bright our classrooms are. We provide a place for young children to learn, explore and grow together, thanks to our wonderful donors and scholarship sponsors. We work with parents and children to create a sense of community and support, and to provide a positive experience for them.”The center is indeed a result of generous giving from the parishioners of St. Ignatius Church, located one block away. Fr. Watters rallied the support needed to renovate the existing structure and build the center, and to fully cover three years of tuition for these first 18 children. The LELC plans to operate 11 months of the year— September through July—with a full day from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
“The Loyola Early Learning Center is another sign of the commitment of St. Ignatius parish to serve the educational needs of the vulnerable children of Baltimore and their families,” said Fr. James Casciotti, SJ, pastor of St. Ignatius Church. “The grace of God, the vision and leadership of Fr. Watters, the expertise of dedicated volunteers, and the generosity of many parishioners and other benefactors has made it possible.”
Another unique feature of this Jesuit preschool is that it strives to help the entire family, including opportunities for parents to learn more about budgeting, cooking and reading to their children. “Families sign a contract to show their commitment to investing in the school with their time and talent,” explained Fr. Watters.
New days continue to dawn in Jesuit education as the Society seeks to make an impact earlier and earlier in our young people’s lives.
There every step of the way: Fr. Watters was there to oversee his vision becoming reality.