Saint Stephen's Episcopal School opened its first classroom for East County kindergarten students last week.
The enrollment for Saint Stephen’s new east county program is in single digits, but staff is already looking forward to growing its enrollment next year.
For its inaugural year, which began Aug. 18, the school's east campus has just one class of six kindergarten students — all boys.
Dave Glaser, communications director for Saint Stephen's, said the organization is happy with starting small—it hopes to grow next year. The goal is for the current kindergarteners to stay on east campus for first grade before moving to main campus for the rest of their education.
“Now it’s a tangible thing—we have a classroom, we have a teacher. I think that gives us an opportunity to grow the program,” he said.
The school decided to create the East County program after realizing about 120 families travel from East County to the main campus in Bradenton. That campus has about 670 children enrolled in its K-12 program this year.
Many of these families elected to continue at the main campus for now because they had both younger children and older ones, said Ann Wolcott, the Lakewood Ranch academic program director, who has been with Saint Stephen's for 13 years. This new program is aimed to catch new and incoming families with children in or approaching first grade.
“We saw that as a need here,” she said.
Saint Stephen's offers a bus service in Lakewood Ranch and east Bradenton, but some parents of younger children hesitated to send their children off on a long morning transport. The east campus, which is located in a classroom at Harvest United Methodist Church, alleviates that worry.
“We looked for a place with a similar mission to ours,” Wolcott said. The Methodist church’s policies on morality missions and spiritual growth tied to mental and physical well-being “fit” with Stephens.
Harvest also has a weekly chapel for its younger students—another similarity to Saint Stephen's main campus schedule. Wolcott said the school plans to send their class along with Harvest to chapel.
Besides spiritual missions, the two churches have a more earthly tie—Catherine and Steve Price, co-pastors at Harvest, sent their son, Sid, to Saint Stephen’s. He graduated in May.
The east campus program will have the same curriculum as the main campus—reading, writing and math along with science, music, art, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Teachers from main campus travel to the classroom to teach the extra subjects, but the six boys are under the guidance of Marlene Shellhammer for the remainder of the day.
Shellhammer worked previously at Stephens for four years before making the move for the east campus class. Before, she had about 13 children in her class. The move to a smaller class is different, she said, but in a good way.
“It gives me the opportunity to work one on one with each child each day—that’s every teacher’s dream,” she said.
Being able to work so closely with a small class allows Shellhammer to meet each child’s specific needs, and she said the boys were more easily able to bond with each other and become close classmates.
“We feel more like a family—we’re already got that feeling, even only in the second week,” she said. “They’re like brothers.”
Lore Feld, whose son, Max, is attending the east kindergarten class, said the new location is easier for her to get him to school. She and Max live in The Meadows in Sarasota, and the drive to the main campus in Bradenton would have been too much time in the car, but she's wanted to send him to Saint Stephen's for a while.
"The obstacle has always been distance," Feld said. "When it opened up closer to my house, it was fabulous."
Feld loves her son's small class size. Max comes home every day happy about school and what he's learned.
"These are the luckiest six boys in all of Manatee County," she said.