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By Katie Kohler, For The Times Herald
POSTED: 10/23/16

NORRISTOWN.  The picture is nearly half a century old, a newspaper clipping in The Times Herald of Pam Callisto cutting out shapes from construction paper with her students during the second year at the West End Pre-School.

The location of the school may have changed from the Schwenkenfelder Church on George Street to Christ Church on West Marshall Street but the core values and the steadying presence of Callisto remain.

On Saturday afternoon, the school celebrated 50 years with friends, supporters, former students and honored Callisto, a teacher/director, for her fifty years of service.

“They couldn’t get a teacher … it’s almost 50 years…can you imagine” said Callisto shaking her head.

In 1966, Callisto was newly married and looking for income but needed something part time to be able to be with her child. She started substitute teaching.

“That’s how I got here, forever and ever and ever,” added Callisto with a chuckle.

The mission of the school has always been to provide an environment and experience which will help a child make the transition from home to kindergarten. Where the West End Pre-School differs begins with the reason of their founding. In the early 60’s three elementary school principals in the Norristown District and their supervisor determined that many of the children in kindergarten were not prepared. Their lack of readiness was attributed to the family and to the community.

The community was in transition in terms of ethnic groups, values, income, and mostly led by single parent homes. Elizabeth K. Weber, principal of Roosevelt school decided to pursue the possibility of starting a preschool. Under her guidance, a committee from the church and lay council was established proposing that “The Seven Churches on the Hill” (the seven Protestant churches in the West End of Norristown), sponsor the program.

“This was a very transient neighborhood and kids didn’t do well in school. There was a need for it. Kids in other areas were more advanced than kids from the West End of Norristown. Also, I just enjoy working with little kids,” said Callisto.

During the ceremony, Judith Austin, Chairlady of the Board, recognized the many contributors, long-time board members and United Church of Christ — which provides free rent as well as secretarial and financial support. She lauded Callisto for her many duties in and outside of the classroom, such as brining in speakers, arranging field trips and hearing and eye tests, and the ongoing recruitment of new students.

“Pam has prepared over 1,000 kids for their transition from home to kindergarten. We are blessed to have her as our first and only teacher, and are grateful for her years of service to the children she has helped to nurture,” said Austin.

Charlotte Meng, left, presented Pam Callisto with a rotating picture/clock in honor of her 50 years of service at the West End Preschool in Norristown

“It’s very rewarding when a child comes to school and doesn’t know his colors, or knows his colors in Spanish and then learns them in English,” said Callisto of the best part of being a teacher. “When you meet them at the grocery and find out they are the best kid in their class. Our kids do very well in school as a whole.”

In the classroom, Irma Johnson who serves as an assistant teacher, aids Callisto. Peter McManus volunteers every day to help the students with English and also offers a class three times a week to parents looking to learn the language. He noticed many parents who didn’t speak English, and wanted to give them the opportunity to learn.

“A lot of the parents find that as their children start growing, English becomes their primary language and if they want to communicate with their kids they have to learn English. They need to help their kids with homework,” said McManus. “It’s a slow process. People don’t realize how difficult it is to learn a language. A lot of the parents have other responsibilities. It’s not easy for them. I think it’s easier for a child to learn the language. They have more exposure to it. The kids here in the preschool have almost three hours everyday and it’s difficult for an adult to carve out three hours a day to learn a language. On top of that, I think the kids minds are a bit more flexible. They are more open to new things.”

Last year and continuing this year, the school enrollment was effected by a new state subsidized preschool/daycare opened in Norristown. The West End Pre School needs 22 children to fully fund the program, and are well below that number.

The funding from foundations has also decreased. The West End Pre-School offers a concentrated three-hour learning experience Monday through Friday with a tuition of $90 a month.

Callisto, who spends summers recruiting students and dropping off flyers, even used her acceptance speech as an opportunity to recruit; asking for referrals for students.

Her best sales pitch wasn’t meant to be one and didn’t come until the end of the ceremony.

“I hope I’m here 50 more years,” she said.

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