On a Tuesday in August, a group of kindergarten students at the school at the Geist Christian Church Mud Creek campus are gathered in the gymnasium around five interlocking hula hoops lying on the floor. The class is participating in a child-friendly Olympic Games. There is a foam faux torch at one end of the room and foam dumbbells at the other. Soon, the 5-year-olds will test their strength.
Events like the mock Olympics for small Christian preschools and kindergartens were in jeopardy entering the school year because of the financial toll the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Mud Creek school received a grant through the church to continue paying staff.
“Not all the preschools are based out of churches, but a lot are,” said Valerie Zeigler, the Mud Creek campus director. “It is challenging because they are private and based around registered ministries. Some are nonprofit, some are connected with the church, some just rent out the building. It’s definitely a different beast than the (Indiana Dept. of Education).”
According to Mud Creek Assistant Director Paula Mager, the preschools at Kids at Geist at Geist Community and Wee Care at Fall Creek Baptist Churches shut down during COVID-19, while Promise Church among others had to reduce their staff.
“Our school staff was able to continue teaching, either in person or when we had to temporarily close our doors (during spring of 2020) through Zoom lessons,” Mager said. “The teachers were able to maintain that relationship with the students, so the students knew their teachers and they knew who the Geist Christian was.”
The school at Geist Christian Church is made up of two different campuses: Mud Creek, 8550 Mud Creek Rd. in Indianapolis, and one at 12756 Promise Rd. in Fishers. The Mud Creek campus is entering its 32nd year of operation this year. The school accepts students from 18 months up to kindergarten and averages about 200 students each year. The classroom student-to-teacher ratios are 11-1 for kindergarten. A kindergarten school day lasts from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., while the other age groups go from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 pm.
The Mud Creek campus, just across the Marion County line from Fishers, has families attend from several communities, including Fishers, Lawrence and McCordsville.
Emily Bryan recently moved to the Nora area in Indianapolis after living for five years I Fishers.
“I drive all the way across town to get my child to school there this year,” Bryan said.
Bryan has sent two daughters through the school at Geist Christian, and one is currently enrolled.
“I love the people at that school,” Bryan said. “They treat my children like they are their own kids, and they are like family to me. They know my name and hug my children. My kids love going to school there and I know my kids are loved when they are there, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
The staff quality spoke to Fishers resident Lisa Schoenrock, who sent four children through the Mud Creek school. At any given time in the past 10 years, she has had at least one child enrolled at the school.
“They are just so caring and loving, and from the minute I walked in there you get those warm fuzzies of, ‘This is exactly where I want my child to be,’” Schoenrock said. “All of the staff are just so happy. It starts from the top with Valerie and Paula and all of the teachers. There’s just very little turnover rate there. They all just go above and beyond in teaching the kids.”
Although almost every staff member is part time, the stability of staffing helped the school stay open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have a continuity of staff. In a day care program staff may change three times during a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. program,” Mager said. “Here, they are with the same two people from when they arrive until when they are picked up. The commitment of our staff is what made that possible.”
A second major support system is the church itself.
“We pulled back on some of our classes during last year due less students attending, but our goal was always to stay open,” Zeigler said. “We had great support from the church, who was able to get word out (of our situation to the church-going community). It’s a really strong community.”
The third support system was the families that kept sending their children during the school year, while the school had to enforce mitigation efforts such as masking young students and teachers.
“It broke my heart that the kids and the teachers had to mask,” Bryan said. “So much of the reason why I put them in that school is because the teachers are so attentive to your kids, and they smile and they hug, and it was just the first time they were told that they couldn’t do that. It just broke my heart. That’s why they were so special. They really go above and beyond. I was thankful that we got to stay in school, but it wasn’t the same that it had been. The teachers hated it and I know the staff hated it. They tried so hard to keep the kids in school, but it changed the feel that year.”
But now, masks are optional at the Geist Christian Church Mud Creek campus.
School attendance between COVID-19
In a typical school year, about 225 students the Mud Creek school campus. The school lost more than a quarter of its average attendance during the 2020-21 school year. About 150 attended that year. But the numbers are on the way back up for the pre-kindergarten school.
To build the confidence in the school and classrooms, the campus resumed some summer camps, which were shuttered in the summer of 2020.
“You have to come in with confidence,” said Valerie Zeigler, the Mud Creek campus director.