Small Business

South Florida program boosts business acumen of childcare center owners

Daisy Acosta, president of Little Heroes Learning Center, get a hug from Brachell Rivera as she walks into a kindergarten class on Dec. 15, 2014.
Daisy Acosta, president of Little Heroes Learning Center, get a hug from Brachell Rivera as she walks into a kindergarten class on Dec. 15, 2014. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

A group of community leaders with a shared mission wants to raise the business acumen of childcare center owners, with a goal of boosting the industry’s performance and profitability.

Now expanding from Broward County to Miami-Dade County, the Business Leadership Institute for Early Learning is training providers to be better business operators, through a series of free workshops. The end result, they hope, will be better quality early childhood education.

“Because we’re dealing with independent owners in low and moderate income areas, it’s difficult for them to charge the fees they need, to provide the quality education that they are providing,” said Robyn F. Perlman, founder and voluntary president of the Business & Leadership Institute for Early Learning. “So to provide the quality education, they mortgage their homes, and in many instances the owners don’t take their salaries, and there are very little in benefits given to the staff or themselves.”

The programming, now in its third year, is called the Early Learning Childcare Provider Business/Leadership Workshop Series. It’s made possible through the backing of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston; Nova Southeastern University’s H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship; Florida International University, the Children’s Trust, Wells Fargo, Florida Power & Light and others, Perlman said.

Childcare centers are a less visible yet considerable-sized segment of education in the United States. Thirty-one percent of the U.S. teaching workforce, or 1.8 million people, is involved in the teaching of more than 11 million children from infant to 5 years of age, according to research by Holly Rhodes and Aletha Huston in the Society for Research in Child Development’s 2012 report, “Building a Workforce our Youngest Children Deserve.”

Dr. Peter A. Gorski, chief health and child development officer for the Children’s Trust, said Miami-Dade has 1,500 early childhood education programs; Broward, 1,000. In Miami-Dade, 500 childcare centers are part of “Quality Counts,” a program that the Children’s Trust and Early Learning Coalition fund to improve the quality of early childhood education.

The importance of early education cannot be understated, Gorski said. A 2012 Harvard University study that linked kindergarten education to IRS files found that a child’s learning during the first five years of life is the biggest predictor of success for adults.

“The readiness to learn and the success that children had in kindergarten predicted all the way to young adulthood: income, housing mobility or stability, quality of college attended, college graduation rates as well as amount of money saved,” Gorski said of the study.

“We had better prepare kids early enough for success, or else the gap between those who are behind and those who are ahead will be very, very hard to make up,” he said.

Yet childcare centers face many challenges. Survey results from the Early Learning Coalition of Broward County showed that most childcare centers do not make a profit, said Perlman, who was previously the Early Learning Coalition of Broward County’s Community Resource Education and Development Chair. The childcare centers, which are mostly owned and entirely staffed by women, often keep children enrolled with uncollected fees, and undercharge for services, the survey found.

In addition, Florida’s annual pay rate of $20,160 for childcare workers is lower than the national average, according to a July 2012 Florida Statewide Early Care and Education Workforce Study.

“Nobody is coming into the industry, because it’s a minimum-paying job at every level,” said Perlman, who is also founding principal of CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, based in Hollywood. The salaries in childcare centers barely rise over a 30-year career, she said.

All of those challenges spill over to the quality of early childhood education.

“FPL wants to make sure we have a workforce population, and it begins that early [in childhood]” said Juliet Roulhac, regional manager for external affairs for FPL in Broward County. “So that’s why we got involved.”

In addition to the workshops each May, the Business Leadership Institute for Early Learning holds an annual conference for early learning owners, directors and administrators, hosted by Wasserman Schultz. There, corporations, including Wells Fargo and FPL teach sessions on the business of early childcare. Last year, more than 200 Broward providers attended, and this year it will be open to the childcare community in Miami-Dade, as well as Broward, Perlman said. At the conference, childcare providers can apply to be part of the 2016 Early Learning Childcare Provider program.

In January, 80 childcare center owners and providers will begin the four-month 2015 Early Learning Childcare Provider Workshop series, to be held at FIU in Miami-Dade and at Nova in Broward. During the last years, two classes were held in Broward, with 20 attendees in each.

The curriculum, created and taught by Wells Fargo, FPL and other companies, includes sessions on marketing, dealing with vendor contracts, how to manage cash flow, and how to create a business plan, said Jackie Gonzalez, vice president and Business Banking Manager of Wells Fargo in Broward.

“I had to find companies that would invest a lot of time and people, and Wells Fargo has come to the table in such a major way, not just in financial resources, but in people resources,” Perlman said.

The goal now is to get more corporations involved, she said.

Daisy Acosta, president of Little Heroes Learning Center and K1 in Doral, graduated from the program in May. Since then, she said her center’s enrollment has increased 26 percent and she has hired a director and an afternoon team leader to help oversee operations.

“Most of us are teachers first, and we don’t even think about the bottom line,” Acosta said. “The program taught me that you have to be on top of your business, not in it.”

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