For child care chain, ‘continuing education’ key to maintaining staff


Michael Miller, executive chairman of Kiddie Academy’s parent company, Essential Brands, Inc., and the son of Kiddie Academy founders Pauline and George Miller. (Submitted Photo)

As child care providers across the country have struggled to pay workers and remain open, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic causing more and more parents to stay home with their children, one Maryland-based chain of early learning centers has all but avoided the turbulence of the last two years. 

Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care, a system of 300 corporate-owned and franchised child care centers based in Maryland’s Harford County, has only expanded in recent years. Its 300th location, located in Urbandale, Iowa, opened earlier this month, and the system’s enrollment has grown by 20% in the past year. There are 19 Kiddie Academies in Maryland. 

The Daily Record spoke with Michael Miller, executive chairman of Kiddie Academy’s parent company, Essential Brands, Inc., and the son of Kiddie Academy founders Pauline and George Miller, about how the business has continued to grow despite the challenges of the pandemic. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for length.

The Daily Record: Throughout the pandemic, lots of child care facilities have been having a really hard time staying open, maintaining their staffs and getting families interested in a time when it has been easier for parents to stay home with their kids. Has there been anything in particular Kiddie Academy has been doing during the pandemic to deal with that and continue your success? 

Miller: Our biggest challenge is not necessarily parents not needing child care, but a waiting list. A lot of our locations have waiting lists where we have parents that want to enroll, but we can’t enroll them because that location might not have staff. 

When the pandemic hit, various states actually tried to close child care centers. They quickly realized that closing child care centers throughout the country really crippled the economy, to the extent where parents really couldn’t work. Even working from home, it just doesn’t work. When you have a 2- or 3-year-old or an infant and you’re working from home, that child knows your home, and they want your attention. Companies are also putting policies in place that really working from home doesn’t mean you’re getting to babysit your child.  

So, we’ve never really seen, in spite of the pandemic, a lack of a need for quality child care. Our enrollment lately, within the last year — so, after the pandemic — has really been robust.  

TDR: In terms of the hiring challenges, is that something that you guys faced much before COVID? Or is it more of a recent problem? How are you addressing it? 

Miller: It’s the biggest challenge in our industry, right? I mean, what we try to do is, we want our staff to look at their job here at Kiddie Academy — either a teacher, assistant teacher, director — we want them to view that position as a career, not, ‘I’m going to work at McDonald’s for a little time.’  

This is a career; this is a lifelong commitment. So, we instill continuing education. We have promotion opportunities with our network of franchisees. There have been plenty of times where a staff member might move to another town and seek out the Kiddie Academy to work at, things like that. So, we try to put things in place for staff to look at this as a long-term career opportunity for them to move up.

Anyway, that’s sort of the historical challenge we’ve always faced and that’s why we have those things in place. But the pandemic did make those challenges even (greater). 

A Kiddie Academy in Baltimore’s Locust Point, one of 19 locations in Maryland. (Submitted Photo)

TDR: You spoke about how your enrollment numbers are even better than they were a pre-pandemic, so I was wondering if you could talk a little more about some of your successes lately and how you’ve been able to achieve them. 

Miller: As the company grows, as we hit 300 (locations), our brand is becoming more and more known out there. So that helps — our brand name starts to build on itself.  

And we’re doing a lot of ‘grand opening’ marketing, things like that, and some pre-marketing before the location opens that has really helped build our enrollment, especially for all new locations. 

(For) a lot of businesses, they go through their construction phase, and they open up, and then they start marketing. We were trying to get ahead of that. We start marketing the day that the franchisee secures a location or site. We start marketing then, and we support their marketing and we have different phases as the location gets closer and closer to opening. By the time the location opens, we open up with a good percentage of utilization already. 

TDR: Child care has changed a lot in the past few decades. Could you talk about what some of those big changes in the industry have been, and how they have influenced Kiddie Academy? 

Miller: We started over 40 years ago, and child care back then was really just safe babysitting, keeping the children safe. The evolution has been really geared more towards educational child care. There was a time when the parents would ask, ‘do you have a curriculum?’ Now everyone has a curriculum, and it’s ‘who has the best one?’ or ‘which one do the parents like?’ and things like that.  

So, the big evolution has been really leaning towards education — which, we’ve always, since day one, had a curriculum. We have a curriculum department, we have an outside committee, and our curriculum is always evolving. We’re always updating it. Education is always changing — theories of education, how you educate — so we’re always on the cutting edge of that part of it.  

The other thing I think that has evolved is child care. The actual facility itself has gotten very sophisticated, very expensive. Our locations have full kitchens, we provide morning and afternoon snack, lunch, hot lunch, that kind of thing. The facilities have gotten really more public school-like as child care has evolved. 

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