Mary Drago Hayes founded Seton Academy 50 years ago after her dad suggested that she and her sister start a school for young children. They were both teachers at the time, but her sister ended up moving to California. Hayes and her husband, Anthony Drago, decided to go ahead with her dream and opened a nursery school, the first Seton Academy. Although Drago has since died, Hayes still serves as Seton Academy executive director.
Recently her daughter, Angela Drago Berliner, found a note her mom wrote long ago that states: “When I dreamed of owning a nursery school so long ago, I dreamed of a wonderful place that could be a haven or a heavenly environment for young children. Where everyone would feel or act happy and this happiness would radiate from one child to another and create an environment of happiness and love along with education.”
As years have passed, her dream has come true, which has brought her much happiness.
Seton Academy was established to meet the needs of children in the Las Vegas area. Psychologists and educators agree that more learning takes place in the first five years of a child’s life than at any other period. With this in mind, Hayes planned Seton’s program and prepared an environment that aids the development of young children socially, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
Hayes has a Bachelor of Science in education from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She worked as a teacher in Cleveland before moving to Las Vegas with her husband in the early ’50s. In Las Vegas, she was a teacher at Our Lady of Las Vegas and West Charleston Elementary (now Howard Wasden), where she taught kindergarten through third grade. Through the years, she has been involved in several professional organizations: Kappa Delta, the National Association for the Education of Young Children for at least 30 years, Las Vegas’ licensing board for preschools and home child care facilities and PEO.
When Seton Academy opened its doors in 1963, Hayes taught kindergarten for several years along with serving as Seton’s executive director. She assisted Carolyn Goodman with development of the Meadows School. Hayes still oversees the programs at both of Seton’s campuses, 9975 Placid St. (southeast) and 3801 N. Campbell Road (northwest).
Through her dedication and skill, the learning experience for Seton Academy’s preschool and kindergarten children is one of Las Vegas’ finest.
Hayes’ late husband was co-founder of Seton Academy and the school’s administrator. Along with overseeing the bus routes, Drago even drove one of the buses. He was a “jack of all trades” and built several pieces of playground equipment and furniture — from the shelves and tables to the A-frame fort and Seton’s famous sand circle that has since been incorporated at both locations. Drago also was the man behind designing Seton’s logo and diplomas. Later, along with student Donald Romeo, he came up with the Seton Academy cheer.
Seton Academy’s original building was located at 1592 E. Hacienda Ave. That location has been replaced by the two locations that are state-of-the -art facilities, with park like playgrounds. Operating hours at both locations are 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Seton accepts children from the age of 20 months through 6 years
Seton was the first unaffiliated preschool in Las Vegas. Fifty years and three generations later, Seton Academy is still educating hundreds of children in the Las Vegas area. The schools meet the needs of the whole child and instill traditional values. Seton is the longest licensed preschool and all-day kindergarten in Clark County, and it was named “Best Preschool” in the city in 2001 by Las Vegas Life magazine.
Seton Academy offers its students academic instruction, living skills and fun through a time-tested program created and perfected by Hayes and her experienced staff. Seton Academy offers structured, teacher-directed curriculum. Educational segments throughout the day include: reading readiness, phonics, language arts, mathematics, manipulatives, computer skills, music, writing, individual instruction and outdoor play.
Seton isn’t just about excellent education; it’s also about teaching children how to love learning, practice manners, play together, be proud of who they are, become confident and gain self-esteem each day. Seton strives to provide an outstanding educational program to build better students.
Hayes said that without her directors and staff, Seton wouldn’t be as successful as it is today. The longevity of staff members at Seton is unusual for a preschool business.
Over the past 50 years, staff members at Seton Academy have averaged employment for 10 to 15 years. Several staff members have worked for Hayes for 20 years, and at least four staff members have worked at Seton for more than 30 years. One teacher retired in 2012 after 40 years at Seton.
A valued employee, Rita Abramson, director of Seton Academy West, came to Seton Academy in 2001 from Michigan with more than 40 years of experience in early childhood education and administration. She also oversees teacher training that is required in early childhood education.
“My employees throughout the years have been loyal and dedicated to the education of young children and I feel very blessed that they have chosen to work at Seton Academy,” Hayes said.
Hayes’ family is also a huge part of her success story. Daughter Angela Drago Berliner has been employed by Seton Academy for more than 23 years. She was an aide for the kindergarten teacher during her junior and senior years in high school. Berliner started to work full time in 1990, starting out with the after-school program, then as a teacher in several of the age groups.
She was an extra bus driver until the school stopped school bus service in the late ’90s. She also helped out in the office and closed the school in the evenings when they were at the original location. She is facilities and marketing director for both campuses and oversees insurance. She is looking forward to continuing her mother’s dream for 50 more years.
The family operation doesn’t stop there. Hayes’ son-in-law, Chuck Stetts, has worked for Seton for more than 32 years. He started out driving a school bus and working the summer program. After earning his master’s degree in child care administration, he opened up the before- and after-school programs. Stetts is the center’s preschool director at their southeast location on Placid Street. He also is Seton’s chief financial officer.
Hayes’ granddaughter, Mary Michelle Erekson, has been employed at Seton for 12 years. Erekson started at Seton Academy West and then transferred to the southeast campus. She first was a teacher’s aide and then became a pre-K teacher after receiving her Associate of Applied Science in early childhood education. She is also in training to become the director at the southeast location.
Hayes’ other son-in-law, Carl Berliner, has been with Seton Academy part time for several years, overseeing all the maintenance at both campuses. Hayes has had other family members work at Seton in the past years, too.
“My family has grown as Seton has grown and I’m pleased that many of them are taking on various roles within the operation of Seton Academy,” she said.
Fifty years and three generations later, Hayes has been educating thousands of children in the Las Vegas Valley. Generations of children have started their education at Seton Academy and many past students have credited their successful lives and careers to their early years at Seton.
Some members of Hayes’ family have attended the academy. Her daughter was in the first graduating class of Seton Academy in 1963-64 and her granddaughter also attended and graduated in 1987 from Seton. Her great-grandchildren are attending the academy; great-granddaughter, Raegan Erekson, will graduate in 2014, 51 years after Hayes and husband Tony started Seton Academy.
Hayes has fond memories of each year at Seton, but she has a special place in her heart for the first graduating class of Seton Academy. To this day, the alumni from the first class keep in touch with each other and come to visit Seton and Hayes on special occasions.
Seton is moving toward the future and always improving its programs, while keeping its traditions intact. Hayes, her family and staff are looking forward to educating young children in Las Vegas. Community members are welcome to come by one of the locations for a tour.
For more information, visit www.seton academypreschools.com or visit the Seton Academy or Seton Academy West Facebook pages.