Sisters Kristin Duffy and Allison Costabile opened their third preschool, The Lighthouse Preschool in Warwick, in early January, and are already finding the same success as their locations in Cranston and Johnston thanks to unique environments, consistent care and maintenance, and a commitment to a small, family-owned business style.
Duffy, a Warwick resident, was working as an interior designer when her sister, who was a full-time nanny, came to her with the idea of starting a preschool. Looking for a change, Duffy agreed.
The sisters opened The Gingerbread House Preschool at 1458 Park Avenue in Cranston in 2007 for children 18 months old to 6 years old.
“Within a year, that was full so we took half of a second building,” said Duffy about the school, which is decorated inside to look like the inside of a gingerbread house.
Gingerbread House Preschool now consists of three buildings on the same property, with 220 children enrolled, 120 in the building at a given time. According to Duffy, Gingerbread House Preschool is a $1 million business.
But the sisters did not stop there. In early 2013, they found the location at 59 West Shore Road in Warwick, a former office space that would become The Lighthouse Preschool. While work was being done on the building, including raising the ceiling and knocking down walls, the sisters learned of a space formerly used as a preschool in Johnston that was available. They toured the building, ended up leasing the space, and turned it into their second location.
The Farmhouse Preschool opened last year at 2320 Plainfield Pike, and is already full; 80 children are enrolled and it holds 50 at a given time.
“We filled it before we ever opened the door,” said Duffy, adding that there is a waiting list for all three facilities for the various age groups.
One extra feature enjoyed by the students at Farmhouse Preschool is live farm animals; the school is home to four Nigerian dwarf goats, three mini pigs, bunnies and two mini donkeys.
“It all started with a pig. I just thought wouldn’t it be cute to have a little pig,” said Duffy.
Then she was worried that the school’s pet pig was lonely, so the animal population grew to the three little pigs and so on. Each animal has their own space, and there is a staff member whose job is to take care of the animals, feeding them, brushing them and cleaning their pens.
“It’s very therapeutic for the kids [to interact with the animals],” explained Duffy, adding that while the animals stay at the Johnston location, students at the other locations do have opportunities to visit the animals on field trips.
In Warwick, Lighthouse Preschool officially started classes on Jan. 9, with a special ribbon cutting ceremony on Jan. 30, and the school is already over half-full.
“This is the last school to fill and we seem to be doing it at lightening speed,” said Duffy.
The building can accommodate 100 students, and they have 59 registered.
“I haven’t done any advertising yet,” explained Duffy; they got calls from the sign in front of the building.
So what makes this family of preschools, which are owned as three individual small businesses, so popular? Duffy says it is a combination of their quality and the family running them.
“Warwick needed a good quality preschool. That’s what the other ones are,” said Duffy, who lives near Rocky Point. Duffy admits she had never worked in a preschool prior to opening her own, but followed an easy plan to make one.
“I just did it the way I would want my kids to be in school,” said Duffy.
Each classroom has a minimum of two teachers with either a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or an associate’s degree; all are CPR-certified. Each classroom also has a kitchen area and bathroom. All of the schools offer three age groups: Infant (6 weeks to 18 months), Toddlers (18 months to 3 years) and preschool (3 years to 6 years).
Lighthouse Preschool also offers an after-school program for ages 6 to 12; that group has their own room with a television, video games, board games and more.
In addition to qualified teachers, Duffy believes the constant maintenance of the buildings attracts parents.
Although Gingerbread House is a $1 million business, Duffy jokes that she and her sister don’t live like millionaires.
“We don’t let it go. The money goes back into the schools,” said Duffy.
The business employs a full-time maintenance crew, a cleaning crew comes in regularly, the classroom walls are repainted every four months, and even the floors are worked on every four months.
“It looks fresh, new, not run down,” said Duffy.
All of the schools are also decorated to match their theme. Gingerbread House looks like a candy fun house inside, while Farmhouse and Lighthouse Preschools feature beautiful mural paintings by Paul Leighton (see sidebar) of farm animals and ocean life, respectively.
Duffy also designs unique play structures for the outdoor areas of each preschool; for example the large play structure at Gingerbread House continues the theme, designed to look like a crooked house out of a fairy tale. Duffy is currently designing a sunken ship play set for Lighthouse Preschool, which her maintenance crew will build.
In addition to the facilities and staff, parents are attracted to the schools’ family atmosphere. In addition to Duffy and Costabile, their other sister Susan Sepe is the director of Lighthouse Preschool and their mother Janice Spirito does the bookkeeping.
“We all work together, play together,” said Duffy, adding that there is always one sister in each school.
“A lot of people tell me it’s because it’s family,” said Spirito.
And this family encourages their students’ families to join in on the fun. Throughout the year, the schools host family events and field trips to attractions throughout Rhode Island, such as the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo and an Easter egg hunt at Cranston High School West, complete with hundreds and hundreds of eggs. Gingerbread House Preschool also plays host to a Christmas party for all three.
“We mingle the schools together even though they are separate business corporations,” said Duffy.
Looking forward, the family is in the process of starting a fourth location in Coventry.
Costs vary by program. At Lighthouse Preschool, Infant programs cost between $77 for a half-day and $225 for five full days and Toddler and Preschool rates are between $50 for a half-day and $205 for five full days. For more information about the schools, find their individual Facebook pages or call Gingerbread House at 654-6854, Farmhouse at 432-7776, and Lighthouse at 391-7489.