Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill Preschool Director Carla DiOrio is all smiles with her poster and Helen Goodroad (who went to preschool there) in her car with her children, James and Charlotte, in the parking lot graduation line. DiOrio came up with the idea as a way of closure for students when the preschool closed abruptly on March 12 due to the coronavirus. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

by Barbara Sherf

It was a most unusual graduation for 22 preschoolers on Friday, May 22, with a car line in the parking lot at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill (PCCH) as “love themed” music blared, teachers danced with congratulatory posters, and each student received a diploma along with a Dr. Seuss book to mark the milestone.

While there was a Zoom graduation and remarks earlier in the morning, PCCH Director Carla DiOrio wanted to do something more to send the grads off in style. “We knew we wanted to do something more than Zoom, and we looked at what some other schools were doing and made it into our own style,” said DiOrio, 41, who has been with the school for three years. 

In mid-March, the school shut down due to the coronavirus but has continued to hold online classes since then. She welled up in tears when describing the results of a survey sent to parents asking three questions. Did they want a refund for the remainder of the school year; did they want to turn the money over to help the faculty, or did they want to earn credit toward tuition for the following year? 

“We have families who are struggling, and it humbles me that many of them were the most generous in terms of turning the money over to staff or taking credit and investing in us for the future,” said DiOrio.

Despite a recent Huffington Post report stating that 60 percent of daycare centers will close due to the impact of the virus, DiOrio feels confident PCCH will survive and even thrive. 

“I am a gypsy, and I wanted to find a place that felt right and landed here,” she said. “I came to a place with over 70 years in Chestnut Hill, and I believe this will go on for another 70 years or more,” said DiOrio, who grew up in Berks County and lived in New York for a decade while working toward her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Fordham University.

“I am not a minister, but I have received a number of phone calls from parents who are scared and wanted to talk. Some of them were in tears, and I tried to counsel them as best I could. This is our way of honoring families, many of whom have been with us for years through their older siblings who have also graduated with us.” 

Teacher Megan McGowan felt a sense of closure as teachers held posters high, music blared and a car line of families passed by, receiving a goody bag of items they had left behind when the school closed abruptly on March 12. “It’s so nice to see smiling faces and not a computer screen,” said McGowan. “It’s bringing us all a little bit of happiness.” 

Gemma Tier, 5, and her family were thrilled to see the teachers and celebrate in person. “Gemma has been here for three years, and it has been so formative,” said Gemma’s mom, Karen Tiver, of Erdenheim. “They have done a fabulous job seeing kids through a strange time. This is not the way we wanted to wrap it up, but they made it very meaningful.” 

Under DiOrio, who did a teaching four-year stint in Quito, Ecuador as a volunteer teacher for an organization called World Teach, students are learning in both English and Spanish through Zoom and Facebook. “It will look different in September. We will be staggering drop-offs, and there will be fewer students per classroom. We will have a professional cleaning staff in every night, and parents will be required to wear masks.” 

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