Legacy of learning: Zion Lutheran Church and School to celebrate 50 years of kindergarten education

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The first kindergarten class of Zion Lutheran Church and School is invited to a 50th anniversary celebration this weekend.

NEW PALESTINE – A kindergarten program that was considered innovative at its beginning will be celebrated for its rich 50-year history, and the legacy of personalized instruction that remains today.

Zion Lutheran Church and School will have an open house from noon to 2 p.m. April 7, bringing back the original class of kindergarteners and anyone who has participated in the program.

Guests will include Marilyn Rathmacher, the original kindergarten teacher that started it all; as well as original principal Dave Grotelueschen.

Rathmacher says she was a young mother at the time the program began, and her daughter was in the first class. Kindergarten was a new concept back then, and many parents saw a need for early childhood education.

“I’m 84 years old now, but I do remember a lot and every Sunday I am so blessed to worship with past students,” she said. “They’ve become doctors and teachers and school principals; I see this all the time, and I even taught my own children.”

The school, originally founded in 1865, had grades first through eighth back in 1972 when kindergarten began there.

The class started with 12 students, meeting mornings only four days a week. Tuition back then was a mere $20 a month. Rathmacher said her first classroom was in a large room that is now the school’s library. Not long after, the kindergarten program was moved to a nearby house.

“It became known as ‘The Kindergarten House’ in the whole area,” she said. “I used all the rooms and I had the kitchen appliances so we cooked in there; a library, worship center the classroom; and two of the bedrooms were used as play areas with toys.”

Kindergarten programs back then were rare or nonexistent in public schools, Rathmacher said, and many families that went to private schools sent their students to Zion for an early education. The program was very family-oriented, she said, where she would talk with parents at pickup every day and families would volunteer in the classroom.

“They were just a loving bunch of children,” she said. “We didn’t put pressure on the children to try to make them do something they weren’t ready to do. They just came every morning and walked into the Kindergarten House and parents came with them.”

She taught two of her own children, one of her grandchildren and by this time next year, Rathmacher will have four great-grandchildren attending Zion school.

“It’s been a long and wonderful journey, I’ll tell ya,” she said. “Zion is a wonderful school and I can’t believe how it’s grown.”

Casey Dodd, the school’s current principal, said Zion owes a lot to the Rathmacher family, not only for their dedication to the education of children but for funding much of the program back then. The event will include a video sharing the history of the school.

Today, Zion has a total of 264 students, from preschool to eighth grade. The kindergarten program is now in two classrooms with 33 students. While the program has grown, Dodd said the dedication to students and personalized instruction remains the same.

Pastor Jason Taylor agrees, saying the small class sizes with one teacher and an aid in each room makes for a solid, caring program.

Taylor has been pastor at Zion 17 years, and his wife is one of the kindergarten teachers this year. Children not only learn the basics of a kindergarten curriculum, he said, but they go to chapel, worship and pray.

“I just love going into the classroom every once in a while and the kids are fantastic kids,” Taylor said. “I watch the kids hugging the teachers every day and just having a welcoming, loving, enriching, Christ-centered environment.”

The event April 7 is open to anyone who wants to celebrate kindergarten at Zion. The school and church is located at 6513 W. 300S., New Palestine. For more, visit zionnewpal.org.