Running the Business of Day Care
- Name of program: The Kid's Place Early Learning Centers.
- Location: Ellicott City, Md.
- Children served: Ages 15 months to 5 years, most of whom are from the local community.
- Average cost: $112 to $150 per child per week, depending on the age of the child.
- focus: The Kid's Place offers full- and part-time care with an emphasis on providing an educational environment.
Ellicott City, Md.
About 30 miles north of Washington, tucked behind a modest subdivision and not far from a stretch of typical urban sprawl, sits a long, squat building that could easily pass for the neighborhood elementary school.
Colorful artwork fills the large windows, and a swing set and jungle gym sit expectantly on the adjacent playground. Yet this inviting building is not connected with the local school district, but rather with a local minichain of child-care centers. It is both a successful day-care provider and a successful for-profit business venture.
The Kid's Place Inc. operates three Early Learning Centers in Maryland. This one, in Ellicott City, is the smallest of the three and serves 68 children ages 15 months to 5 years. The children are grouped by age into five rooms, and the number of caregivers in each room is determined by set ratios: There is one caregiver for every three infants up to 23 months, one caregiver for every six children in the 2-year-old room, one for every 10 children in each of the two 3- and 4-year-old rooms, and the ratio is one to 15 in the 5-year-old room.
Each caregiver must be certified by the state, complete a thorough background check by the FBI, and go through extensive training workshops run by the center.
The similarity between The Kid's Place and a school runs more than skin-deep. There is no simple custodial care here; the center uses a curriculum, designed at the University of Michigan, with the idea of preparing its young charges for a successful elementary school experience.
Each room in the center, and the schedule of each day, is set up with this learning in mind. The Kid's Place uses the High/Scope curriculum, which, according to Jackie Summa, the director of the Ellicott City center, incorporates the pedagogy of Montessori, Piaget, and Erikson.
The curriculum provides a theme for each week, and almost every activity or lesson during the week is tied to that theme.
During this week in mid-March, several rooms in the center are wrapped up in St. Patrick's Day. The daily story time includes Irish folk tales, simple math lessons involve pieces of "gold" from the pot at the end of the rainbow, and an art project produces depictions of leprechauns. It adds up to an overall experience from which the children can take generalized knowledge. "We are interested here in introducing concepts," says Summa, who is also the educational director for The Kid's Place Inc. "We do not drill facts into the children's heads. We don't want to teach them just the ABCs."
The High/Scope curriculum, she explains, includes both a whole language and a phonics approach to teaching reading. Every room in the center has a large bookshelf--in an area identified by a sign inscribed "library reading"--full of high-quality children's literature.
Center staff read these books aloud to the younger children, who are allowed to peruse them on their own without formal instruction on how to decode the words they see. The 5-year-olds, however, are taken a step further: Their reading experience is supplemented with guidance in the sounds that make up the English language. The children read books that focus on the short vowel and long vowel sounds and are encouraged to decipher the words they find in the other books on the shelf.
In addition to reading instruction, the children are exposed to other concepts through specific activities dictated by the High/Scope curriculum. Though adapted somewhat for each age group, space in each room is set aside for science and discovery, music, art, listening, and block play. Laminated signs label each area and list the developmental objectives driving each activity. During a 45-minute "work time" twice a day, the children are allowed to choose their own activities. This activity is labeled "work time" because, as Summa explains, "children learn through experience, and a child's work is play." Afterward, the children recite what they spent their time doing in an activity called "recall time."
The result of this organization is a structured environment with a lot of flexibility built in to the day's activity. Such structure is attractive to Jeanne Murphy, whose child attends The Kid's Place part time. Murphy says she likes the way that The Kid's Place "helps the children learn without forcing them to learn. My son loves to come here, and he is learning all the time without even knowing it. They really provide a wonderful family atmosphere." Phonics instruction, she feels, is an essential part of learning to read, and she is pleased that The Kid's Place incorporates it into the curriculum. "The Kid's Place really met our needs," she says, "both with the flexibility of being able to come part time and with the top-notch instruction that they offer."
The Kid's Place tries to meet the needs of its clients, but it also wants to meet its own needs--that is, as a business, it must meet a bottom line. This, says Mark Rosenberg, the chief executive officer of The Kid's Place, is anything but easy. "Finding the balance between quality care and profit," he says, "is extremely difficult." The largest chains, he says, achieve about a 5 percent profit margin.
"It is possible," he says, "to do fairly well in the child-care business. But your centers must be almost full, and once the enrollment begins to drop, the profits decrease very quickly."
The three centers that The Kid's Place runs are almost full, Mr. Rosenberg says, and some age groups have more space than others. But he adds that to say that child care in general is not available is incorrect; the only area in which space is tight is infant care, which is expensive to provide.
The Kid's Place in Ellicott City charges fees based on age: Infant care is $150 per week, parents of 2-year-olds pay $120 per week, and care for 3- and 4-year-olds is $112 per week. Parents who pay by the month are entitled to a 3 percent cost reduction.
The Kid's Place does some limited advertising in the Yellow Pages and some local parent-oriented newspapers. But, says Rosenberg, child-care centers in general do not do large-market, generalized advertising. It just doesn't efficiently reach their potential clients, who are limited for the most part to a two-mile radius around each center.
For Murphy, whose son attends The Kid's Place, Rosenberg has created a success. "He's very happy here," she says of her son as he runs off to play. "And if he's happy, I'm happy."