Ascension alum plans to open day care in vacant school building in Arbutus

Arbutus Times
Lifelong Arbutus resident plans to open day care at old Ascension school space

The old Ascension School building on Maple Avenue in Halethorpe will soon again welcome students, thanks to one local alumna.

Samantha Walls, who attended first through eighth grades at Ascension Parish School in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is planning to open a day care center there by the end of this week.

"It really is amazing to see the transformation of the school," said Walls, founder of Leaps Ahead Learning Center.

Once a mainstay in the community, Ascension was one of 13 schools closed in 2010 by the Archdiocese of Baltimore as part a plan to address a decline in enrollment in many area Catholic institutions.

The closure of Ascension hit hard, Walls said. She grew up near the school, she said, and currently lives with her husband just two blocks away from the building.

"It was such a camaraderie," she said of the old school's atmosphere. "Everybody knew everybody."

Because she was a shy kid, Walls said her parents sent her to Ascension in the hopes that she might feel more comfortable and enjoy herself more at a small school. Their plan worked, Walls said.

"I just really grew into my own," she said, adding that the friends she made in elementary and middle school there are the friends she remains close with today.

When the school closed, Walls said, the whole community felt the loss.

"It was just kind of sad to drive by and see all the dark windows," she said.

In 2013, Walls, who had previously worked at the Relay Children's Center as a teacher, opened her own day care at her home. The experience, she said, was great, but she soon realized she would need a bigger space if she wanted to be able to care for more children.

Immediately, she thought of the Ascension building, she said. But when she contacted the diocese about renting space there, she was told that another day care was using the building.

Then, in June of last year, Walls said, a day care operating out of the building closed and the space again became available.

"When the opportunity came up for Ascension, it was amazing," she said.

For the past two months, Walls, her family and friends have been working around the clock to get the building ready.

New carpet has been installed, security fences have been put up and an outdoor play area has been constructed, Walls said. On Monday morning, Walls said, the center received final approval from the Baltimore County Office of Child Care.

Melissa Swanke, who will teach children ages 2 to 4 at Leaps Ahead, was one of those friends working on the renovations needed to open the new center.

"I think it's great," the Violetville resident said.

In 15 years of working in child care, experience has taught Swanke that not all day care centers are built to last. But Leaps Ahead, she said, offers local families something that she thinks will ensure its longevity in the Halethorpe community.

Leaps Ahead, she said, will feature a distinct family atmosphere built around the staff.

When the final approval from the county is granted, the center will begin operating out of the building's ground floor, Walls said. So far, there are 24 children, from infants to 4-year-olds, whose parents plan to enroll them.

In time, Walls said she plans to convert of the building's old hall space into more classrooms space. Within a few months, she hopes to have between 45 and 50 children enrolled.

Her office, she notes, is in her old principal's office.

"Bringing life into that school, that was really important to Sam," Swanke said.

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