With toddlers now studying Mandarin or learning curricula that use the latest research in early brain development, the landscape of early childhood education has changed dramatically since the first Kiddie Academy opened in Reisterstown in 1981.
" 'Daycare' was the terminology that was used back then," said Gregory Helwig, president of Kiddie Academy. "It was more a baby-sitting service than anything else. Parents would drop their kids off for the day, and there wasn't really an educational component."
Now, Abingdon-based Kiddie Academy is promoting its "educational child care" services, building a new flagship location and developing a web of franchises at a rapid clip. The company has 142 branded locations in 23 states and has awarded franchise rights for another 97 locations that are in the process of opening. The company also has $165 million in annual revenue and about 14,000 enrolled children nationwide.
Recently, the company's first franchise in Baltimore opened in Locust Point, and franchise co-owner Nimita Sheth says some of the first children to enroll are dropped off by parents who work at nearby apparel giant Under Armour.
Helwig said much of the industry's evolution was driven by parents seeking to give their children the earliest of head starts on college and careers.
"Parents sought more than was being offered, and the smart business owners and entrepreneurs knew if you could give them something they had not thought of, you could make the model more attractive," he said.
Fewer than a quarter of Maryland's kindergartners were taught at home or in an informal center before entering school, according to a report this year published by the Maryland State Department of Education. The rest learn in the federally funded Head Start program for low-income families, in public prekindergarten, private nursery schools or child care centers. Those taught at home or in informal centers were least likely to meet state standards for children entering kindergarten, which includes knowing the alphabet and numbers.
The emphasis on school readiness for the toddler set may have developed amid concerns about childrens' reading ability and campaigns that have highlighted that issue, said Judith Walker, chief of the early learning branch of the Division of Early Childhood Development for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Also, "we just know so much more about brain development that we recognize more of what children are capable of learning," Walker said, adding that it is now generally understood that young children learn best through sensory experiences. "When they look at children exposed to different types of rich experiences versus those who don't, it confirms things we probably already knew, but it confirms the importance of making sure kids get these experiences."
The early childhood education industry has taken some criticism for being hyperfocused on educational outcomes rather than letting children have fun. But Helwig said the children at Kiddie Academy still get naps and plenty of outdoor playtime. The operators seek to turn daily moments, like a community-style lunch, into an opportunity for learning skills such as manners and sharing.
Many Kiddie Academy franchises are seeking to stand out by offering unusual programs, such as Mandarin, music or sign language, in addition to the company's branded curriculum, he said. All of the franchises are either accredited or pursuing accreditation, he added.
The company has four "pillars" that it uses to guide learning: developmentally appropriate curriculum, health and fitness, character education, and technology education.
"For years, the industry was shared between center-based providers like Kiddie Academy and the mom-and-pop operators," Helwig said. "Many of those mom-and-pop operators cannot compete any longer. They can't provide the curriculum these families are looking for, so they're going out of business or they're converting to brands that can help them provide that curriculum."
Many of the Kiddie Academy franchisees, Helwig said, are parents who were seeking quality child care and didn't find something that met their standards, so they decided they would open their own center. The company started franchising in 1992 and is now looking to expand in more states.
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"Typically, the franchisees that come to us are corporate warriors, and they come to us looking for that work-life balance," said Greg White, who oversees franchises for Kiddie Academy. "A lot of our franchisees work very hard for themselves and think they can start that kind of opportunity."
Sheth, the co-owner of Kiddie Academy's Locust Point location, said the center has enrolled seven children, and she already envisions opening more centers in popular city neighborhoods.
Sheth, who has a background in psychology, business development and information technology, said she missed working with children and families, and opted to open the franchise. It offers a full music program, sign language and a webcam where parents can watch their children during the day.
"We believe preparing kids for school is important, but it's just as important to prepare them for life," Sheth said.
Sheth said many child care centers in the city don't have a playground on the premises, and her location's outdoor space will be another competitive advantage.
"There aren't that many options in this area," she said. "Now there is a push for more professional child care centers that wasn't really there 15 years ago."