A cutting-edge early learning facility is open and running in Warwick – the first of its kind in Rhode Island and among over 300 such facilities of its kind nationwide. At the helm is a husband-wife team from Providence who are as serious about early learning models as they are about Providence College basketball.
“The idea is if school is fun, you will enjoy school,” said Nick Hemond, co-owner (along with his wife, Amanda, as well as a partner at his law firm) of the first Learning Experience Academy of Early Education in Rhode Island. “If you enjoy school, you will work hard and learn.”
The Learning Experience is a national early education company based in Florida (and originated in New Jersey) that was started by Richard Weissman and began franchising locations in 2003. It combines elements of daycare and schooling, which targets two-income working families and is available for kids from six months old to six years old. It is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
“We have them right until they go to kindergarten,” Hemond said. “We have curriculum even for the six-week-old babies…A lot of places will put the baby in the crib, pick it up when it needs to eat, put it back, let it sleep, pick it up – not here. Whatever your baby’s schedule is, we’ll follow it.”
Hemond, in addition to his law practice, is currently the chair of the Providence School Board, and described himself as a “big advocate for early childhood education.” The early education kids receive at the Learning Experience includes everything from Spanish (starting at around two-and-a-half years old), to sign language, to outdoor summer camp activities and soccer in the summer and interactive sensory experiences.
The curriculum changes every month and is delivered in fun ways to kids through the use of 89 different cartoon characters – with Bubbles the Elephant being akin to the Learning Experiences version of Big Bird, according to Hemond. Charity and community involvement is also a pillar tenant, and a book drive is currently ongoing at the Warwick facility.
“Our curriculum is rigorous and it’s challenging, but it’s fun because it’s delivered through our characters and our teachers who are all experienced and have the kind of personality we’re looking for to create a warm and loving environment where, when you come in as a parent, you think ‘I would have loved to come here as a kid,’” Hemond said.
Currently the Warwick-based Learning Center, which opened in February, has about 30 kids and employs 10 teachers. The facility has a maximum capacity of about 107 children prior to some upcoming modifications that will put that around 115.
Throughout the bright, brand new furnishings of the building are displays of artwork created by the students, a total of eight classrooms for various activities and age groups and an outdoor playing area with a couple of play structures, a synthetic turf field for soccer (the same type of material used by the New England Patriots) and a rubber turf for the younger kids.
The crown jewel of the Warwick facility, however, is Make Believe Boulevard – a vast space with a roadway built into the linoleum tiled flooring and large play structures that mimic a typical downtown area – complete with a diner, a garage, a fire station and a general store. It’s essentially a scaled up, 3-D version of the popular “downtown carpet” play mat that can be found at schools and within homes across the country.
For the Hemond family, buying into the Learning Experience franchise was a perfect combination of timing – they have a two-year-old son and Amanda was searching for a career that felt right – and seeing the Learning Center model for themselves during a trip to the headquarters in Florida when they were doing research.
“It was unlike anything we had seen here,” said Nick, who admitted to being against sending his child to preschool prior to learning about the Learning Experience.
“My son is really sharp and he talks a lot, but in three weeks of being here he’s noticeable different,” he said. “And I’m the kind of person who didn’t want him to go to preschool and kept him home with my sister-in-law or my mother – every excuse I could not to send him to a daycare – and now I see how good it really is for them to be in an environment like this.”
In addition to the large and robust curriculum, Hemond said the advantages of sending a child to a Learning Experience facility include the socialization they enjoy with other children and the fact that nine out of 10 Learning Experience students are already proficient at reading when they get to kindergarten.
“I think that is just the greatest advantage that you can give a kid,” he said. “The science of education is if you’re not on grade level by the third grade, the rest of your life – absent some phenomenal educator or some breakthrough – you’re playing catchup for the rest of your educational career. If you come into kindergarten, and you’re already reading, instead of being self-conscious, instead of struggling, now you’re at the head of the class.”
Hemond credits a teacher he had when he was around six years old as making a lasting impact on his life, and is also one of the reasons why he jumped at the opportunity to own a facility that specializes in giving children a positive first learning experience.
“You don’t appreciate how much the first teachers a kid has in his or her life and the impact that they can make on them,” he said. “Because if they get off on the right foot, they get the skills, you enjoy going to school, and then you have a lifelong learner.”
Hemond did not disclose costs for monthly tuition with the Learning Experience, but said that rates were competitive with other daycare facilities that actually provide less. Discounted tuition is available for some families who qualify. There is also a program called Working Family that gives 10 percent discounts to families who work for companies that have partnered with the Learning Experience. These companies include ADP, Avis and Budget car rentals, Target and Starbucks, to name a few.
“We’re competitive rate-wise if not cheaper than a lot of places,” Hemond said. “I accept the state aid because I want everybody to have an opportunity to come here and give every child and every parent the opportunity to give their child a leg up when they get to kindergarten.”
The Learning Experience, located at 60 Jefferson Park Road in Warwick, will host an official ribbon cutting with city officials on Thursday at 11:30 a.m.