The Leaps Ahead Learning Center currently makes its home in one corner of the former Ascension School in Arbutus, a large, sand-colored 1960s-era structure where pictures of Jesus and Mary still line the corridors. It’s a small business in a big building with an even bigger ambition behind it, and that’s courtesy of Samantha Schene Walls ’12, psychology, the young owner and director of Leaps Ahead.
“I don’t ever stop doing things,” Walls says in Ascension’s front office one bright, chilly spring morning. “I’m one of those people [who says], ‘Ok, this is done, now what can we do next?’”
Walls, who took classes year-round at UMBC while holding down a full-time job as a preschool teacher, says this is only the beginning, and that she plans to expand Leaps Ahead to other locations in the area.
The newest incarnation of Leaps Ahead is its second, having begun as a small center in the basement of Walls’ home. She’d started her own business after working in a commercial child care center for several years, and she soon found that the demand for an affordable neighborhood day care was high. People kept calling, and “I was maxed out [on spaces] within two weeks,” she says.
Walls attended Ascension for elementary school, and when the space became vacant, she met with the archdiocese, signed a lease in September, and got to work. She and her husband Erik Walls ’13, geography and environmental systems, spent two months’ worth of nights and weekends fixing the place up before opening the doors to her first class in November, and by the following April, what started out as about a dozen children in her care had ballooned into the thirties.
“We’ve more than doubled,” she says. “It’s been fantastic.”
Walls says she wears many hats as the director for Leaps Ahead. She does the billing, the payments, the hiring and staffing, and she’s been planning field trips for the summer. As word spreads in the community about the day care center, she’s given more and more tours to prospective Leaps Ahead families.
She also tries to step in and help the teachers whenever she can, having been in their shoes herself once. She’ll help make meals for the kids, or take over a class for a while so the teacher can take a lunch break. “I don’t want to be an absentee [manager],” she says.
Walls tries to bring a personal touch to every aspect of her business, and emphasizes the “home away from home” character of Leaps Ahead. The key word here seems to be home: she herself grew up in Arbutus, coming through Catholic schools here, and says that her “fantastic” first grade teacher at Ascension made her want to work with children.
“We’re very close with all the families[, and] they all have my personal cell phone number,” she says.
Parents are free to stay with their children during the day here, and many do. Some of Walls’ charges have included the children of UMBC staff members. Some of these kids have been with Walls since (literally) the very beginning, children who were babies when she was still at her first teaching job. She’s now working with the younger siblings of some of her first graduates. She’s getting to watch them grow up.
In the three-and-four-year-old classroom on this spring morning, a small group of children sits coloring in the middle of the room. Walls pokes her head in to introduce all of them, but one little girl seems to have a pressing matter for her to attend to.
“Miss Sam! Miss Sam! Miss Sam!” she pipes up, and Miss Sam asks what the matter is.
“I love you,” the girl says.
— Julia Celtnieks ’13