When Kelly Smith’s daughter Sloane was in preschool at St. Norbert School, a small, private Catholic PK-8 school in Northbrook, Smith says she thought long and hard about the right choice for kindergarten. The Smith family had options, and they knew what they wanted.
“Kindergarten really sets the foundation for that point in time when you want to get involved and meet other parents and create a community,” Smith says. “We ended up liking St. Norbert so much that we stayed.” Today, Sloane is in fourth grade and her sister Kara is in first grade, both at St. Norbert School.
The Smiths, busy working parents who knew kindergarten was valuable, were surprised at the strides that Sloane made in the small, play-based environment at St. Norbert. Sloane was laying the foundation for academic success, but also gaining so much more. “It was that social-emotional piece that helped her mature so much,” Smith recalls, crediting St. Norbert’s unique buddy system.
From pre-K to eighth grade, students are assigned a buddy to meet, form a mentoring relationship with and support throughout the school year, and these relationships can last decades. Through this program, older students visit the classrooms weekly to read with their buddies, play counting games and celebrate holidays with small gifts. “The middle school buddies escort their younger buddies to church, and they sit with them. Older buddies are truly modeling the type of behavior expected in church,” Smith says. “I’d pop in and see the kids with their buddies and it’s the cutest thing.”
Because students attend St. Norbert School from their early childhood years through eighth grade, they grow and develop in a consistent and caring academic environment, building strength upon strength that families can measure from one year to the next.
Relationship building, a tenet of social-emotional learning so integral to the kindergarten year, is reinforced by small class sizes, which give kids the opportunity to work together, develop relationships and build self-esteem as they learn to cooperate with one another. Here, teachers really get to know their students, which paves the way for more individualized learning achieved independently and in small groups. Smith says she could see that growth happen practically before her eyes.
“I was amazed at the social growth and, at the end of kindergarten, how very articulate my daughter had become,” Smith shares. “She could express her emotions and she knew the differences between good behavior and bad, and she was holding real conversations.”
In addition to the social-emotional skills of self-esteem, relationships, self-regulation and recognizing thoughts and feelings, Sloane demonstrated conflict resolution skills. “That was something that shocked me,” Smith says, retelling a story shared by her daughter about stepping in and supporting a student who needed it, taking appropriate action to right the situation.
The kindergarten year at St. Norbert School was foundational for developing leadership skills, too, Smith says. “My kids play sports and I can see it on the field. Nine and 10-year-olds rallying as if they are running a business. I can see the respect on the team, even though the kids are from different schools. They know how to support each other.
“As parents, we were wondering if our kindergartener could read and do math,” Smith says. “But it was so eye opening and valuable to see what she learned in kindergarten at St. Norbert School on top of the academics.”