Claudette Alves chased her students through the bark, around the bars and up the flight of stairs that lead to the slides.
“She’ll chase them up there,” fellow teacher Jennifer Dalen said.
Eventually, St. Anthony’s longtime preschool director corralled the pint-sized children, leading them back across campus, each one clinging to a ring on a rope.
As they marched past the office and around the corner, Dalen marveled at Alves’ impact on the Catholic school’s tight-knit community.
The students have benefitted from her instruction, while the adults – from the staff to the parents – have benefitted from her example.
“The love and the nurturing, that motherly love for all her children has inspired me,” Dalen says, “and it’s made me a better mother myself.
“When I came here, I wasn’t planning on staying but she’s the one who inspired me to stay in early childhood education and commit to being here to serve the children.”
After 22 years, Alves has the energy, excitement and endorsement of staff to teach another two decades, but she won’t.
Her time on campus is dwindling. Alves will retire at the end of the school year, leaving a program she launched in September of 1993.
The last day of instruction is Wednesday, May 27, and staff will celebrate the start of summer with a luncheon on May 29.
“I think St. Anthony’s is a community. I’ve felt that support, because my kids have been here too. It’s like being at home,” Alves said. “I never wanted to go anywhere else. This is where I wanted to be.”
Ready to spend time with children, grandchildren
The hustle and bustle of end-of-year festivities have kept Alves busy. She hasn’t had much time to think about her final days on campus, much less begin to say goodbye.
“People ask me, ‘Do you know how many days you have left?’ I haven’t been counting,” she said. “I’m sure the last day will be hard. I had a really beautiful Open House on Sunday; it was wonderful. A lot of families came by and I appreciate that.
“I’ll miss it,” she later added, “and I’m sure I’ll have some tears, but I’ll come to visit.”
Alves said the pull of family was simply too strong. She has three grown children – Erik, Jennifer and Matthew – and four growing grandchildren. A fifth, she revealed, is on the way.
Her husband, John, has been retired for 12 years now, and Alves admits to being a bit envious of the intimate time “Papa” gets to spend with the grandchildren.
The two recently watched their 2 ½-year-old grandson Austin Toepel for a week. While Austin and Papa filled their mornings with play, Alves headed off to work.
“He and Papa are like this,” Alves said, crossing her fingers tightly. “I get a little sad because I’m missing out on those times.”
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Guided the program through challenges
St. Anthony’s will miss their matriarch of early childhood education.
Through the years, Alves has steered the preschool program through a variety of challenges and changes.
The preschool survived a decline in enrollment when the Manteca Unified School District launched its Preschool for All program, circa 2007.
“For a couple of years there, the enrollment was very low,” Alves said, sitting comfortably in one of the miniature chairs that fill her classroom.
“Some parents went there, and as we went along, people started to come back.”
During that unrest, Alves volunteered to cut her own hours to keep the program in the black fiscally while sparing any staff or class reductions.
“It showed that her heart is here for the children and the preschool, so that it would continue on with the programs and the help that is needed,” Principal Mary Lou Hoffman said. “It didn’t take long for enrollment to come back, because I think they realized what they were missing.”
Alves is appreciative of the support she’s been shown by the various principals at St. Anthony’s over the years, especially Hoffman. The two have worked together for 11 years now.
“All of the principals … they’ve pretty much let me run the program,” she said. “If there was a problem I could go and talk to them. I knew I had their backing.”
Leaving the preschool program in good hands
Today, the preschool is home to 65 children. St. Anthony’s offers four classes – morning and afternoon sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and morning and afternoon classes on Tuesday and Thursday.
The curriculum has evolved as standards, expectation and technology have reshaped education at all levels. While students aren’t required to attend preschool, Alves believes it has become a necessary starting block.
“It’s much more academic than when we first started,” Alves said. “We work on a lot of those kindergarten-readiness skills, so that when they do go to kindergarten they’re ready.”
“It’s not something they have to have,” she later added, “but kids who don’t go to preschool are pretty much lost because so much is expected.”
Dalen will succeed Alves in the fall, becoming just the second director in program history.
“I’ve got some big shoes to fill, but she said I could call on her anytime,” Dalen said. “Twenty-two years is a longtime. I will do my best to continue what she started.”