According to the website, Review42.com, there are 30.2 million small businesses in the U.S., fueling an amazing 44 percent of the U. S. economy. These entrepreneurs have decided to strike out on their own for myriad reasons, ranging from personal inspiration to a desire to delay retirement. According to statistics presented on the website, more than 25 percent of those businesses were opened by individuals who wanted to be their own boss. About 16 percent of those businesses were opened by someone who wanted to pursue their passion (guidantfinancial.com/small-business-trends).
From passion to life’s work
Ann Rogalski, founder of Make Way for Ducklings Preschool and Kindergarten fell into the latter category. Her passion for early childhood education led her to begin planning to open her own school even before she had completed her degree in early childhood education and psychology at Wheelock College in 1980.
“I started the process when I was a junior in college,” Rogalski shared, adding that it was a struggle because of her age and limited finances. “Finally, Reverend Paboojian at [the former] Emmanuel United Church of Christ [in Springfield, MA] took a chance on me.”
With permission from author Robert McCloskey to use the title of his book as the name of her new preschool, and all the licensing finally in place, Rogalski opened the doors to Make Way For Ducklings in 1981 with 17 students. By 1984, she had added a second school in West Springfield at 20 Lathrop St.
“Families were driving such a long way to come to us [in Springfield] and were asking for it, and I lived in West Springfield,” Rogalski said of her decision to open a second location so soon after establishing the first Make Way.
Forty-one years – and nearly 4,000 ducklings later – Rogalski is handing over the keys to her passion. This fall a new director will be welcoming the ducklings back to the nest.
“I still haven’t accepted it, but I know it’s the right thing,” Rogalski admitted.
Rogalski said she started realizing how long she’d been educating young children in the greater Springfield area about 15 years ago.
“I got a call from Robin [the office manager] who said a former duckling wanted to enroll her child in the school,” Rogalski recalled. “And I thought, ‘Am I that old?’”
It was then she realized that “We have three generations [of ducklings] that have come through this school. “And I had a thought…maybe I was getting old for this field,” she admitted.
It planted a seed, but the implications of that realization didn’t come to any kind of fruition until about three years ago, she shared.
Rogalski said she began to think about all the Christmas holidays she’d come in to make sure the heat was working, the late Sunday nights she’d spent checking the conditions of the classrooms after the church had used the rooms, the last-minute scramble to cover a teacher who called in sick…all the responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of an owner.
Her father, also a small business owner, had worked right up until his death. She and her husband talked about the future of her school. He didn’t want the same fate to befall her.
“I’m [now] 63. He’s 64. We’ve both had some orthopedic injuries, and I wanted to be able to ride my bike and take a walk when I’m 70,” Rogalski said of the discussion that began about the time she reached her 60th birthday.
Teaching young children, after all, is a physically demanding job, as anyone who has chased a preschooler knows, she shared. And being a small business owner is a 24/7 responsibility.
“I would jokingly throw the keys out at every Monday morning staff meeting and say ‘I’m ready,’ and listen to the ‘maybes,’” Rogalski said, not really prepared to pass on her business and step away, but knowing the time was drawing near.
Then in September of 2020, a teacher at a staff meeting said, “I’m ready.”
“This truly is a calling, it truly is a passion, I needed someone like me” to hand the business over to, Rogalski said. Like many small business owners, she found that successor among her employees, and the process started in earnest this past January.
The teacher who stepped up to take over the school, now located at 455
Island Pond Rd., fit the passion and calling mold, she said. Though she hadn’t been with Ducklings for a long time,
Rogalski said her successor had a wealth of experience and background in the early childhood education field, and had shown the same kind of passion and commitment to the students during her tenure.
“She was an associate director [at another school] before she came to Make Way For Ducklings, so she understands everything,” Rogalski said. “She’s been in the field for more than 11 years.”
Part of the succession agreement, she added, was that the new director must retain the staff that has been with Rogalski for so many years.
“We know the answer [to Duckling’s success] is the staff,” Rogalski said, adding that some of her teachers and staff have been with her for nearly 35 years.
But that still left the technical parts of handing over a business to be completed.
Rogalski said she’s been working with the new owner to submit and secure her licensure with the state.
She’s also been sharing – and going over – the school’s procedure manuals, including the ones she wrote and rewrote during COVID-19, when the guidelines for teaching small children shifted several times.
“I was lucky to have been doing it for so long, I just wrote policy after policy,” she said.
She added Make Way was able to stay open and help families have a place for their children to learn and grow throughout the pandemic because of the dedication of her staff and teachers – and the trust parents put in her and her school that they were doing everything right.
Rogalski shared she has assured the new owner she would be available to answer any questions, or help with any details or situations, for as long as she was needed.
I’m not going to leave my baby without having everything in place,” she said.
But the hardest part, Rogalski said, was knowing that she was locking the door for the last time as owner on June 30.
“It’s my family, my passion, my teachers…I’ve built an additional family in addition to my own family, and it will be hard not seeing everyone every day,” Rogalski said. “The teachers and children, the parents…I remember them all…it’s something I’m gifted with, and a blessing.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said. “I have been blessed over my 41 years of teaching and educating young children.
“When I count my blessings,” Rogalski continued, “I thank my husband Bill, my daughter Caroline, my family and my dedicated teachers, who alongside me, have devoted their lives to the lives of the many children and families we have had the privilege of being a special part of building the foundation for the beginning of their education.”
Editor’s Note: Prime Finance Columnist Gina Barry also wrote about business succession in her column for January 2021. You can find a link to the article at http://www.primeontheweb.com/finance/the-family-business/