Pastor William Flesch Emeritus
Heidi Braun, Director/Teacher
Preface – by Bill Flesch
Our family, Sharon and I and our two toddlers, Travis and Sarah, arrived in Winona in June 1973. We had moved from Chicago, Illinois where I was on staff as a chaplain at the Swedish Covenant Hospital on the north side of the city. Working only with the dying on end of life issues for a year, I realized I needed balance in my life where one not only walked with people through their valleys in life but also able to celebrate with folks on occasions of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage and other significant milestones. I decided to take a break from chaplaincy and asked the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for placement in a congregation and was assigned to Redeemer Lutheran Church, Winona, Minnesota.
A month prior to our arrival in Winona the Winona Day Care, which had been housed at Redeemer Church, moved to Maria Hall on the St. Teresa campus. A few years later their former presence in the church building worked to our advantage in starting Redeemer Preschool. Because the space had been occupied by a day care center for children it was automatically grandfathered in by the City of Winona in meeting building codes for a preschool.
An Initial Thought Moves to a Committee and on to Reality
Three years after the birth of our fourth child, Dietrich, Sharon began talking of wanting to return to the classroom. Sharon was a graduate of Concordia Teacher’s College, Seward, Nebraska, with a Bachelors of Science Degree in Education. Licensed as an elementary school teacher Sharon had taught in Illinois at Trinity Lutheran School, Hoffman, Holy Cross Lutheran School, Collinsville, and Bunn Elementary School, Springfield.
In the 1970’s the significance of early childhood education was not as strongly supported as it is today. Early childhood education at the time was an immerging field in the landscape of education. In 1976, when Redeemer Church was considering the possibility of a Preschool, had only three preschools operating none of which were church affiliated: Winona Nursery School was housed at Central United Methodist Church (Wesley United Methodist Church today) a non-sectarian private school, Winona State University and St. Mary’s University each had preschools for training education majors.
Realizing the potential market and possibilities of ministry with children and families both within and outside the congregation, approval was obtained from the Parish Planning Council of Redeemer Church and a committee was formed with the mission of researching the feasibility of establishing a preschool. In addition to Sharon, two other educators on the committee were Gerald Timm and Dr. Jean Billman. Gerald Timm, a member of the Redeemer Church congregation, had taught business classes at Winona Senior High School, was certified in school administration and served as Vice-Principal of the Winona Middle School, and at the time when starting the Preschool was a counselor at Winona Senior High School. Dr. Jean Billman was on faculty at Winona State University in early childhood education and very supportive of creating a Christian preschool. By chance her religious preference was also Lutheran being a member of Faith Lutheran Church, Winona, and her husband a Lutheran pastor who served as a street minister in the Thurley (currently Maplewood Townhomes) community.
Sharon, Jerry and Jean each brought unique contributions that solidified a plan for a quality school. Redeemer Preschool would be part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s parochial school system with its supervision by the Minnesota South District’s Director of School Services. However, to enhance the quality of the Preschool it would also be licensed by the State of Minnesota Department of Human Services. Sharon went back to classes at Winona State University to become certified in early childhood education so she could serve as both director and teacher.
The start up of a Preschool in the church building received mixed reactions by members of the congregation. Not all of the experiences in housing the Winona Day Care those years were positive. There was concern the facilities, including the worship area, would again be overrun by children with nothing off limits or safe from use and abuse. It took a couple of years of the Preschool being in operation for the fear to dissipate
When the Preschool Committee decided it was indeed feasible to move with the development of a Christian preschool it was determined to have a fully equipped school from the get go and that required some upfront money. The school was fortunate in being the recipient of several grants. The Evangelical Lutherans in Mission (ELIM), through the efforts of the Rev. Dr. Alfred von Rohr Sauer, faculty member of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, and prior to that Assistant Pastor to his dad, Rev. Alfred Sauer, at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, Winona, gave a grant amounting to $5,000 for equipment. Additional grants were received from the Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood Insurance Companies. To further fund purchases in the start up year of the Preschool, Sharon did not take a full salary but diverted it to the purchasing of equipment and furnishings. Loyal Tullius, a member of Redeemer Church and a cabinet maker, built several hinged cabinets for books, puzzles and manipulative toys that could be closed and rolled out of the way when the lower level of the church was used by other groups, i.e. Cub Scout meetings, Sunday School.
Staffing of the Preschool by design was to be a team teaching situation in a shared classroom. Sharon’s continuous prayer, as the plans for the Preschool were coming together with the opening scheduled for September 1977, was that a suitable teaching partner would surface. God heard and answered her prayer in an ideal team teacher in the person of Alice Stehr. Alice, her husband Richard, and daughter Angela came to Winona in May, 1977. Richard had taken a position in management with Watlow Corporation, Winona. Alice, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse had taught 7 years at the Greendale Public School system followed by substitute teaching in the Hartland Public School District, both suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though invited and encouraged to attend another Lutheran congregation in Winona by their neighbors, the Stehr family came to Redeemer Church one Sunday morning and stayed. Alice joined the Preschool staff and for the next ten years she and Sharon team taught together.
Having had the Winona Day Care occupy the lower level of the church the space had the required percentages of floor covering in tile, hard surface, and carpeting. The floor plan was ideal with a kitchen and restrooms immediately off from the classroom space. Teachers were able to give supervision without leaving the room.
Redeemer Preschool opened its doors in September of 1977.
(Printed documentation states that Redeemer Preschool was established September 10, 1978, although individuals involved with the founding of the preschool are confident it started operating in 1977.) The first several years of operation, the Preschool was located in the lower level of the former Redeemer Church on West Broadway. Being housed at that site necessitated the teachers to clear the room every Friday for cleaning and set up for Sunday school. The hinged cabinets mentioned earlier would be closed, and all of the other equipment in the room would be stored in a walk-in closet. The large closet would be piled from floor to ceiling and to the door with equipment. This weekly task became the one event teachers would grumble about when executing.
The Preschool started out with class sessions only in the mornings. The number of children per session was limited to 20. Children were enrolled for two sessions (Tuesday and Thursday) or three sessions (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) a week. Later due to increasing enrollment the sessions were expanded to afternoons on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The children served came from different ethnic backgrounds and in some instances English was a second language and very limited. The same was true with religious preference. In addition to children from different Christian denominations there were children of different religious faiths such as Muslim and spiritualism (those who worship their ancestral spirits). This diversity existed socio-economically as well. It was the intent to give every child whose parents opted for them to have an early childhood education enrollment regardless of their ability to pay tuition. A scholarship fund was set up and has continued to be an integral part of the mission so no child is denied. In fact, due to the grant from ELIM initially a percentage of the student body was to be from the immediate neighborhood, the Thurley Homes. This diversity of ethnicity, spirituality, and socio-economics made a rich learning environment in the Preschool.
The Preschool, though an integral ministry of Redeemer Lutheran Church, had its own Preschool Board of Directors for governance. This Board, in addition to the two teachers, consisted of parents whose children attended the Preschool. Members of the first Board included Nancy Hauschildt, Karen Kruger, Florence Dambach and Sally Orr. Florence was not a preschool parent. However, she was a member of the Redeemer Church congregation with a strong interest in early childhood education having worked with Winona Day Care children when located at Redeemer Church.
The philosophy of the Preschool from the very beginning is children learn through play and planned hands-on activities. The core curriculum offered included Bible stories (Mission Life curriculum, later Godly Play) and prayer, language arts (Peabody Language Arts curriculum), music, art, and free play where children interacted with one another developing interpersonal skills, at times with the intervention of a teacher using a teachable moment, and large and small muscle activities. At the beginning of a new school year there were often tears when separating from parents, but that quickly changed to not wanting to go home at the end of a class session because they were still engaged in activities. A mother whose four-year-old daughter attended that first year said, “I had no problem in leaving my daughter at the Preschool because I could sense from both Sharon and Alice a heartfelt mothering. I knew I wasn’t leaving my child with strangers because of the warmth that was there.” It was by word of mouth from satisfied parents that the Preschool quickly grew in student numbers to the point where a waiting list was created for possible openings. To this day Redeemer Preschool has a positive reputation in the greater Winona community. The Preschool together with the Redeemer Garden, an organic garden whose vegetables were given to food shelves, senior citizens, and the Catholic Worker Houses, were the two primary ministries associated with the Redeemer congregation in the community.
The 1984 – 85 school year the Preschool, together with the congregation, moved to the Tau Center on the campus of the College of St. Teresa for a period of a year as construction was underway for the new facilities. The church building on Broadway had been sold to Faith Assembly of God and they wanted possession of the same. The Franciscans, mostly college faculty, extended great hospitality to everyone at the Tau Center. The Sisters often referred to the children as “the babies.” What the children enjoyed was the novelty of riding an elevator up to the second floor where the Preschool was housed.
A Teacher Training School
The Preschool not only served the educational needs of children, but it was a training classroom for early childhood student teachers from both Winona State University (WSU) and St. Mary’s University. At some point Winona State was blocked from assigning student teachers to Redeemer Preschool because of the need to observe separation of church and state. However, Redeemer Preschool continued to provide training for WSU practicum students in early childhood education. Redeemer Preschool teachers worked closely with the Education Departments of both Universities.
The fall of 1987 saw a change in teachers. Alice and her family moved to Stillwater, Minnesota where Richard had taken an engineering position with another firm. Around that same time another young family, Gary and Carla Burton and their three sons, moved to Winona and enrolled their sons, Seth and Danny, in the Preschool. The Preschool connection brought this couple and their family to Redeemer. Carla was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point with a degree in education. Being a Preschool parent Carla served on the Preschool Board and was involved in the interviewing of prospective candidates. After the third person was interviewed, Sharon turned to Carla and asked why she hadn’t applied. Carla did, and the two team-taught until the spring of 1992, when she and Gary opened Grace Place, a home and ministry for unwed mothers in Winona.
The fall of 1992, Bette Cichoski, a graduate of Winona State University with a degree in education and teaching experiences at St. Martin’s School, Winona, and Title 1 in the Lewiston Elementary School, came on staff. Bette taught five years with Sharon leaving in the spring of 1996 for a position with Winona Day Care.
With some changes at Grace Place, Carla Burton returned in the fall of 1996 and resumed team teaching for a year-and-a-half. During this time the Burtons were living in rural Trempealeau, Wisconsin. To shorten her commute Carla took a teaching position at Bethel Lutheran Preschool in Galesville. With the loss of Carla, Sharon was devastated but hopeful God would provide the right teacher for Redeemer Preschool. God did provide, and her name was Rhonda Norton. Rhonda taught the next several years at the Preschool before adding the role of Director in the fall of 2006, when Sharon stepped aside from that position. Sharon continued to team teach with Rhonda until 2007. In July 2007, after 28 years of teaching, Sharon resigned. Her letter to Rhonda and the Preschool Board of Directors read: “Due to health issues and the treatment I will be receiving during the next five months, I think it best for the children, the school, and myself that I resign my position as a teacher at Redeemer Preschool.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity of serving children and their families for 28 years in this ministry. I take with me many positive memories of the children and colleagues that I have been blessed to work with over these many years. I will miss not coming back this fall.”
Kärin Wollan joined Rhonda in the fall of 2007 and the two team-taught for a year before Nicole Dahly joined them. Kärin and Nicole shared one teaching position. They both taught at Redeemer until 2010 when they both resigned for other employment opportunities.
Heidi Braun accepted the teacher position in the fall of 2010 which Nicole and Kärin had previously shared. Heidi was no stranger to Redeemer, as both of her boys were Redeemer alumni. She also had subbed for Sharon a few years earlier.
With a greater percentage of working mothers and more early childhood options in Winona, the enrollment was gradually declining over the years. Although there were still morning and afternoon sessions, afternoon classes were showing progressively lower enrollment, except for a “Terrific Tuesday” class created for children who would be entering kindergarten the following year.
In the spring of 2012, Rhonda resigned as both Director and teacher to work for the Winona Area Catholic Schools. Heidi Braun took over the role of Director in addition to her teaching role. For the first time in the preschool’s history, the Preschool Board decided not to fill the other teaching position. Instead they decided to hire a paraprofessional.
Various changes have been implemented in the past two years. Morning sessions have been extended and the afternoon sessions have been eliminated. There is a greater emphasis on literacy, small group learning centers have been added, and STEM curriculum was introduced. New equipment and supplies have replaced outdated items.
One thing that remains the same at Redeemer is the importance of play. Play is taken seriously and children are given a significant amount of time to play. Sharon Flesch shared the philosophy of other early childhood educators that “play is a child’s work.” The learning that occurs through play is fundamental to a child’s development.
New studies are confirming what early childhood educators knew long ago, that quality early childhood education is vital in the development and success in the lives of children.
The Future of Redeemer Preschool
Redeemer Preschool will continue offering high quality early childhood education for all children. In the near future, Redeemer Preschool will become a Parent Aware rated preschool. (For more information on Parent Aware visit: www.parentawareratings.org)