Notre Dame a ‘welcome’ home for its youngest students

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Notre Dame teacher says making the ‘little ones’ feel loved and supported a big part of her job.

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(Updated 02-14-17)

Charged with teaching Notre Dame’s youngest students, junior-kindergarten (Jr. Kindergarten – JK4) instructor Kelly Bicknell says she works really hard at making her classroom welcoming and accessible.  

“The most important part of my job is welcoming each student into my classroom with loving arms,” said Bicknell. “Plus, allowing each three or four year old to develop in an environment where they truly feel loved and supported is very important to me. 

She said since her students come to her at such a young age, she really wants them to feel like her classroom is an extension of their own homes.

Not far from home

Home for Bicknell now is Auburn Hills, very close to the Notre Dame campus, and she grew up not that much farther away, in Rochester Hills. The youngest of mom Brenda and dad Scott’s two daughters, Bicknell graduated from Rochester High School and went on to Central Michigan University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development. She hired in at Notre Dame right after graduating from college in 2007 and after a few years teaching in the classroom, earned a master’s in early childhood education from Oakland University.

But even before she got to CMU, Bicknell had an inkling that she wanted to work with young kids. 

“I grew up going to a pubic school and had especially wonderful memories of elementary school,” she said. “I had not had much experience with private schools, though, but the second I stepped onto Notre Dame’s lower division, I knew it was a special place. The school community and students made me feel very welcomed.” 

Innovative International Baccalaureate

Like the rest of the students at Notre Dame, Bicknell’s “jr.K-ers” have access to one of the most innovative school curriculums in the world. The International Baccalaureate program is taught at Notre Dame to students as young as 3 years old — like as those in Bicknell's classroom — to seniors in high school. In particular, the IB-Primary Years Program, taught exclusively at Notre Dame’s lower division, focuses on the early development of the whole child as an inquirer, both in the classroom and in the world outside.

For Bicknell, though, she says with such young children in her classroom, it really is tricky to find the right balance between getting them to a certain point in their learning development and providing both an interesting and fun-filled environment. 

“At this age, you really cannot push a child’s development too much,” she said. “But you can provide an environment that promotes learning in a fun and safe way. I love watching my students learn things such as how to spell their names and also sharing in their excitement when they write it down on paper for the first time. 

Bicknell also said social and emotional development is extremely important for these very young students and she loves helping to shape them into “mission-driven human beings.”

Diana Atkins, the principal of Notre Dame’s lower division says Bicknell has a great understanding of child development milestones. “Kelly utilizes this knowledge to ensure students are not only thriving socially, but also academically," said Atkins. “Spending one to two years at such an early age in her class helps students chart a greater path for success during the rest of their Notre Dame careers and beyond.”

Now well into her ninth year at Notre Dame, Bicknell is just as excited about her class of junior kindergartners as she was when she first got to the school, which at the time was located in Waterford. Since then, she’s witnessed a lot of positive changes to Notre Dame, with the introduction of International Baccalaureate among those near the top of her list.

But she says the new lower-division facility also was a big deal. “The move from the old building to this new beautiful building was one of the most significant changes to our school since I started working here.”

So the “new beautiful building,” which is just about to grow by six classrooms, is now home for the lower division and—if Bicknell has anything to do with it—it’s also going to feel just like home for the next class of young Notre Damers. 

Follow Notre Dame on Twitter at @NDPMA.

About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy

Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.

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