‘Little Angels’ take flight at Msgr. Clarke early learning program

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WAKEFIELD — Like most schools throughout the diocese, Monsignor Clarke School is preparing to welcome its next generation of students this fall. Unlike other schools, however, some of these incoming three year old, Pre-K students have actually already attended MCS.

“This year, nine students will be entering our PreK program after having spent last year with us,” says Dr. Arthur Lisi, the principal of Monsignor Clarke. Dr. Lisi is referring to the school’s Little Angels Early Learning Program, something which he describes as being “a sort of pre-Pre-K.” The year-round program is the first of its kind in the diocese, and enrolls students as young as 18 months (as opposed to the school’s traditional Pre-K program, which begins at 3 years).

“We focus on creating an environment that’s totally enriching,” explains Dr. Lisi. “It’s play with a purpose, and a purpose for play — we work on strengthening fine motor skills and promoting early socialization. Then, when it’s time to move on to Pre-K, these little ones can really hit the ground running. We’ve been seeing a huge difference.”

Since the inception of the Little Angels program in 2015, its unique model has attracted attention throughout the diocese.

“I really believe that this style of academic program is going to spread to our other schools,” says Daniel Ferris, superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Providence.

Indeed, Dr. Lisi has confirmed that multiple administrators from other Catholic schools have visited Monsignor Clarke over the past year in order to learn more about the program and observe it first-hand.

This widespread interest is due in part to financial considerations: as a year round program, Little Angels offers a reliable source of revenue even in the summer months. This makes it particularly attractive for local parochial schools — especially when one considers the program’s remarkable rate of growth.

“When we first started Little Angels, we only had one student for the first several months. Then we grew to two, then three, and now we’re up to 24,” Dr. Lisi recounts. “We have had amazing success.”

For the Little Angels, that experience consists in the blend of structured play, story time and special activities that characterize most early learning programs.

“What really sets our program apart is its location,” explains Sara Marshall, director of admissions and development at Monsignor Clarke. “We’re not a typical daycare; we’re right in the middle of an actual school. That means that the kids have access to all of the resources of the school itself: they can go to story time in an actual library, they can play in the gymnasium on rainy days, they can go to school events — and most importantly, they can start adjusting to the sights and sounds of an elementary school before they even begin Pre-K.”

There’s even quite a bit that Little Angels stand to learn from the other students at Monsignor Clarke, Marshall says. “We take every opportunity we can to let them interact one-on-one with the older children,” she explains. “We give our middle schoolers a chance to read to them during story time, and several students go into the classroom to interact with them throughout the week.”

Such programs, according to Marshall, help to provide the youngsters with role models and accelerates the development of their social skills.

According to Marshall, this early academic acclimation can have dramatic results on the social and educational development of the Little Angels.

“Now that we’ve had the program going for a few years, we have been able to collect firm data,” she explains. “And the students coming out of Little Angels really are leaps and bounds ahead.”

The Little Angels curriculum is designed to target the major developmental milestones of early childhood, with units centered on language skills and early literacy, large and small muscle control, basic mathematical concepts, and social and emotional maturation. Of course, attaining all of these goals is only possible through cooperation with students’ families. Emily Sprague, head teacher of Little Angels, identifies this parent-teacher synergy as being one of the program’s greatest strengths.

“We really partner with our parents so well,” she says. “This isn’t the kind of program where you just drop your child off so they can have something to do while you’re at work. Both the parents and the teachers have to be really invested in hitting these goals and I’ve been so blessed that every parent I’ve met so far has been completely committed to that.”

Sprague was hired in 2016, not long after the program was founded and currently has three other Little Angels staff supporting her. This gives the program a student-to-teacher ratio of 1:6 — something which can pose a challenge to school considering adopting the model.

“Keeping our ratio as low as possible is critical for this to work,” explains Dr. Lisi. “That means hiring good, professional staff upfront, and hoping you can advertise through word of mouth. It isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. But in the right environment — and Monsignor Clarke has proven to be that environment - this style of pro-gramming can be enormously successful.”

Whether or not early learning programs ever become widespread in our diocese, it is clear that this program (and all of its Little Angels) have become a cherished part of the Monsignor Clarke family.