FLUSHING — St. Mel’s Catholic Academy — which had been slated to permanently close after 59 years as a kindergarten through eighth-grade school on Aug. 31, 2020 — received a second chance by becoming an early childhood center in the fall of 2020. St. Mel’s Early Childhood Center currently serves 114 students in nursery through third grade, including a hybrid second and third class.
“The bishop has declared this year a ‘Year of Renewal for Catholic Education.’ We have had our own renewal here as we changed to specialize in early childhood education,” said Amy Barron, who has been principal of St. Mel’s since Sept. 2019.
Similarly, Joseph G. Fonti, pastor of the Church of St. Mel, said he considers this a “rebirth, restart of the academy.”
“We’re very grateful to Bishop DiMarzio for this opportunity and his trust in this, as well as to the diocese’s schools committee, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, and Msgr. David Cassato [vicar for Catholic schools] for believing in what we wanted to do,” he added.
Reopening as a reinvented institution was no easy feat in about a month’s time, especially during an ongoing pandemic. However, the school community rallied together to raise $71,673 with the Unsung Siblings Foundation, for the construction of a new outdoor playground.
The space — which was unveiled and blessed on Oct. 22 as the Dorothea Ryan and Caterina Cassandro Playground at St. Mel’s Early Childhood Center — enables students to develop their gross-motor, imagination, and social skills in a safe environment, according to Barron.
The early childhood center now also features a state-of-the-art piano learning lab for students in kindergarten through third grade. The lab was donated by the Fonti family and named in memory of Father Fonti’s mother Raffaela who loved music. Barron says she also hopes to build up the center’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program and potentially refit the STEM lab that was previously used by upper-grade students.
In terms of increasing academic rigor, the center has also implemented a new reading program and is using i-Ready, a comprehensive assessment, and instruction program that determines students’ on-grade level proficiencies and provides individualized approaches to learning.
Parent and alumna Alexandria Ziraschi has her daughters enrolled in kindergarten and the second grade at St. Mel’s, while her eldest daughter attends St. Andrew Avellino Catholic Academy. She emphasized how special St. Mel’s is because of the connections that are forged within the community.
“Father Fonti and Mrs. Barron are at the door every morning, greeting the kids by name and with a smile. And the teachers and staff do things every day that give students something to look forward to when they go to school,” Ziraschi said. “That nurturing, loving, family feel is what makes St. Mel’s a unique place.”
Barron added, “We pride ourselves on the family-like atmosphere we have here, and — being a small school — you can do that. We never want to lose that personal touch and connection we have with all of our families.”