Archives | 1989
SMALL TOTS, BIG BIZ
By TAMAR LEWINJAN. 29, 1989
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January 29, 1989, Page 006030Buy Reprints
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IN MAPLE HEIGHTS, OHIO, JUST OFF THE highway that leads to downtown Cleveland, at the building with the big red bell tower in front, a steady stream of traffic comes through every weekday morning from 6:30 to 9. Mothers and fathers drive up, unbuckle the baby seats, lift their children out and take them inside to one or another of the long, open, bright rooms.
The infants go into Miss Diane's room, where each has a crib. The toddlers go to Miss Gloria, who helps them paste paper eyes, arms and legs onto a precut figure. The kindergarteners go to Miss Nancy, who exhorts them to ''try really hard to stay on the dotted lines'' when they trace shapes in their workbooks.
The names are different, but the scene is the same in Danbury, Conn., Jurupa, Calif., Watauga, Tex., Minnetonka, Minn., and more than 1,200 other locations around the nation where parents leave their children at the Kinder-Care Learning Centers.
The trademark red bell towers, topped by bells that do not ring, are printed on the smocks every Kinder-Care teacher wears, on the company newsletter, and on the quarterly activity calendar that goes to 115,000 Kinder-Care parents. And they are fast becoming a familiar part of the American scene.
Since 1969, when the real-estate developer Perry Mendel opened his first day-care center in Montgomery, Ala., Kinder-Care has enrolled more than a million children - and in the process, heralded the birth of a burgeoning new for-profit child-care industry. With 17,000 employees in 40 states and Canada, Kinder-Care, the largest day-care chain in the nation, has become big business, with quarterly operating revenues of nearly $75 million, and net profits of $6.25 million.
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But the growth of Kinder-Care is far more than a business story: it represents not only the rapid evolution of the nation's attitudes toward child care but the professionalization of parenting.
UNTIL THE 1980'S, MOST MOTHERS stayed home during their children's preschool years, and those who did work usually chose to have their children cared for in the home of a relative or neighbor.
''People didn't think they were using day care if they dropped their child off with the lady down the street,'' says Ellen Galinsky, project director of work and family studies at the Bank Street College of Education. ''There was this idea that day care was only for poor single mothers who had to work and had no choice but to leave their child with strangers. It was tainted with a welfare mentality. In 1977, after I published a book on child care, I found that many people had the image of it almost as a kind of concentration camp for children, with little hands sticking out around wire fences. But now that most mothers are working, we call it child care, and it's become mainstream.''
Although family day care - provided in the care-giver's home - is still the most commonly used form of child care, especially for infants and poor children, the Census Bureau's most recent data, for 1984-85, show that the percentage of working mothers of children under 5 who chose formal day-care programs had doubled to 25 percent, from 13 percent in 1977. It also showed that working mothers who had completed college were twice as likely to use a formal day-care program as those who did not graduate from high school.
''There has been a lot of research in recent years showing that children can benefit from early childhood education or enrichment programs,'' says Sheila Kamerman, a social-policy expert at the Columbia University School of Social Work. ''So more and more middle-class parents now want to enroll their children in some kind of organized program when they get to be 2 or 3 years old.''
Most of the parents who choose Kinder-Care say they have considered family day care, and rejected it, either on safety grounds, or because they like the idea of Kinder-Care's formal curriculum. ''You look at the day-care homes, and there's only one lady with 10 or 15 kids, and you think she just can't have time for all of them,'' says Jackie (Continued on Page 89) McGough, whose 4-year-old daughter, April, is at Kinder-Care Learning Center No. 1, the original center in Montgomery. ''Here, there are more grown-ups around, so it seems safer, and they teach them things and have a lot of toys and activities.''
To many parents, Kinder-Care seems safer simply because it is so much better known than the mom-and-pop centers with which it competes. Even people without children have become familiar with Kinder-Care through a barrage of Drexel Burnham Lambert advertisements, touting how innovative financing can provide capital for a new industry.
For many people, the concept of a for-profit day-care chain - quickly nicknamed ''Kentucky Fried Children'' - was unsettling. But though a few experts still fear that for-profit child care may be marked more by concern for money than for children, most have come to agree that there is no inherent reason why a publicly-traded corporation cannot care for children as well as, or better than, the lady next door or the local Y.M.C.A.
''There was a lot of uneasiness about us, just as there was a lot of uneasiness around the development of for-profit hospitals and nursing homes,'' says Ann Muscari, the vice president for corporate communications. ''But the family just can't handle everything anymore, and it turns out that in child care or in nursing homes, for-profit service companies can sometimes maintain standards and quality controls that are hard for the voluntary sector to match.''
KINDER-CARE'S APPEAL stems partly from its child-oriented environment: the chairs, tables, sinks and toilets are kid-sized, the toys and equipment are abundant, and the attention to safety is meticulous, in everything from placing electric outlets four feet off the floor to the safety checklist that must be initialed each day by each center's safety coordinator and returned to headquarters. Accidents, such as a child falling off playground equipment, or a tooth knocked out, are written up in formal ''incident reports.'' There's no guarantee that all of Kinder-Care's procedures are followed at every center, and state licensing authorities say that Kinder-Care has been cited for its share of safety violations.
Still, there is little that is slipshod or random about Kinder-Care - and little that is very homey either. The centers are relentlessly upbeat, with a full schedule of activities. Artwork and learning aids fill the walls, the doors and the ceilings. Even the rugs are less cozy than educational, with a bright mix of numbers and designs inspired by checkers, backgammon, Parcheesi and Chinese checkers.
Most Kinder-Care centers have a capacity of 100 to 150 children, and because of the open architecture the din can be overwhelming. Though the infants have a separate room, the rest of the children at most centers are in a large open space divided by cubbies. While the group at one end of the room is singing ''Gotta Shake My Sillies Out,'' the group at the other end may be hearing the story of ''Goldilocks and the Three Bears,'' while the group next to them is talking about the letter G - the sound of the week - and getting ready to glue gold glitter on large, pre-drawn G's.
Parent visits are always welcome. But the idea of parents setting policy or changing the program is alien to a corporation that develops its curriculum, safety guidelines, nutrition plans and even its pleas to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association Inc., at the large modern headquarters building in Montgomery, Ala.
Every month, the teachers receive a packet of curriculum materials from headquarters, suggesting activities for each age group. Some have been developed by Kinder-Care's own educational specialists and some are purchased from various educational publishing companies. On a day in November, Kinder-Care 4-year-olds across the nation were hearing ''La Tortuga,'' a Spanish-English story about a turtle, finding the hidden turtles in the picture and following the fold-up pattern to make their own paper turtles. But, despite the standardized curriculum, the teachers' own enterprise determines many of the daily activities. Though they have to begin with the basic required curriculum, they can go further with it. Some children on this day might also be making Mexican hats, playing with maracas, or looking at real turtle shells.
''For teachers without much experience, the suggested activities can provide a lot of guidance,'' says Ms. Muscari. ''But teachers with a lot of experience tend to use them mainly as a springboard for their own ideas. The only thing we care about, as a kind of truth in advertising, is that the things listed in the calendar for parents actually happen.''
The day's activities for each age group are posted on a special parent board, explaining, for example, that the group did finger painting with chocolate pudding that day. For parents of babies in the infant rooms, the documentation is even more formalized. Every morning, they put stickers on a wall chart to show when they want their babies to have bottles, naps, and play time. And every afternoon, they get a written report on exactly when their infant slept, ate or had a diaper change - and a note on the child's development.
At the Somerset, N.J., center, reports may be written in the voice of the child: ''Mommy, I have been trying to say mommy but it did not come out yet but when it does, you will be the first to know,'' said one recent report.
''We have to put it in writing, because a lot of these babies are here for a long day, and the care-giver who was there at the end of the day might not be the same one who was working at the beginning of the day,'' explains Suzanne Kazi, a Kinder-Care district manager in New Jersey.
Kinder-Care works hard to help parents hold on to the feeling that they are the primary people in their babies' lives - a feeling that can be all too fragile when an infant has been in day care from the age of 6 weeks.
''I always tell the infant teachers, 'You think you saw the first step, but maybe the baby was just putting her foot out to keep from falling,' '' says Dr. Laurene Smith, the vice president for educational research and development at Kinder-Care headquarters in Alabama. ''You can tell the mother she seems so ready to walk, you bet she'll do it tonight. But don't take that first step away from mom. She needs it more than you do.''
BECAUSE MOST AMERICAN women, unlike their counterparts in many other industrialized nations, have no legal right to maternity leave, many women must be back at their jobs six weeks after giving birth, and most are back in the workforce before their babies are a year old. The demand for infant care is growing rapidly.
At the Somerset, N.J., Kinder-Care, there are 150 children on the waiting list for the eight cribs in the infant room. ''People are so worried about finding a place that we have someone on the waiting list who isn't even pregnant yet,'' says Tanjila Ahmed, the director of the center.
Unlike preschools, Kinder-Care is specifically designed to meet the needs of working parents, with most centers open from 6:30 A.M. to 6:30 P.M. Most Kinder-Care children stay at their center for 10 to 11 1/2 hours a day. Hot meals, varying from cheese grits in the South to macaroni and cheese in the North, are served every day. School-age children attending Kinder-Care's Klubmates program are taken by a Kinder-Care van from the center to school in the morning and from school to the center in the afternoon.
The increasing number of women in the work force insures a continuing demand for services like Kinder-Care, but most working parents -and even the strongest Kinder-Care enthusiasts, like Ms. Kazi, the New Jersey district manager - still have ambivalence about the effect their working has on their children.
''I don't think there's a day that goes by when I drop my kids off that I don't wonder if I shouldn't be home with them,'' says Ms. Kazi, whose two children, Allison and Christopher, spend their days at the Somerset Kinder-Care. ''We're the first generation where working moms are the norm, so I have nothing to tell me what that does to the kids. My sense is that Allison has much better verbal and social skills than kids who stay home all day, but that she also has more difficulty playing by herself. I've been thinking that it would be nice to provide some private space in the centers, so kids could have more of a chance to play by themselves.''
Parents' mixed feelings about day care have been fueled in the last two years by the much-publicized findings of Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University. He found that infants under 1 year old who were in nonmaternal care for more than 20 hours a week were more likely to be insecurely attached to their mothers than others, and were more likely to become aggressive 5-year-olds. Most child-care experts, however, reject Professor Belsky's findings, because they say he did not differentiate between good and bad child care. Indeed, the consensus at recent conferences has been that good day care -that is, day care with adequate staffing by trained, responsive adults -not only has no ill effects but can be beneficial.
THE LAST TWO YEARS HAVE brought a sprinkling of high-priced new ''gourmet'' child-care centers, but Kinder-Care and its two main competitors - La Petite Academy and Children's World Learning Centers - are pitched squarely to middle- and working-class parents.
''The upper-middle-class is a very crowded market for quality child care,'' says Edward (Hoot) Gibson, since 1988 the president and chief operating officer of Kinder-Care Learning Centers Inc. An open-faced, slow-talking 42-year-old, he joined Kinder-Care five years ago, as director of human resources. ''We appeal to the broad range of people in the middle-class, two-income families that might be earning $25,000 a year in Birmingham, or as much as $75,000 a year in Minneapolis or Boston. That's a group for whom it has not always been easy to find quality child care. We don't really know what the saturation point is. All I can say is that we're planning to add 100-plus centers every year for the next five years.''
And yet, as a business, Kinder-Care seems to be less attractive on the stock market than it used to be. Once a favorite on Wall Street, the company lost some of its luster for investors after - using Drexel Burnham Lambert's controversial ''junk-bond'' financing techniques to raise the capital - it began rapid expansion and made extensive forays into other fields. To date, Drexel has raised more than $350 million for Kinder-Care and, in the process, it has helped with an ambitious string of acquisitions, including savings and loan associations.
But Wall Street has not been pleased with the diversification, and last year Kinder-Care Inc. spun off the day-care centers as a separate entity, offering Kinder-Care Learning Centers as a new over-the-counter stock, 87 percent of which is owned by the parent company. The prices of both stocks have been languishing ever since.
But the trend toward more formal day-care programs is so strong, analysts believe, that Kinder-Care, which now accounts for 2.5 percent of the $14 billion child-care industry, could be 10 percent of the industry by the 1990's.
A strong area of growth is likely to be the corporate-sponsored centers, in which an employer contracts with Kinder-Care to provide care for its employees' children. Kinder-Care currently runs such centers for the Cigna Corporation, Disney World, New Jersey's St. Barnabas Medical Center, Daytona Beach Community College and other institutions. Two years ago, a similar venture into corporate-sponsored care faltered, when Kinder-Care's contract with Campbell Soup Company, at its headquarters in Camden, N.J., was not renewed. Suzanne Kazi, who for a time served as director of the Campbell center, says the problem was parent complaints: ''It came down to little things, like I would serve peanut butter on waffles for breakfast, and they would say they didn't want their kids to have peanut butter on waffles. There was too much parent involvement, almost to the point where parents were trying to run it as if they were the board of directors.'' A Campell representative, Ginny Marcin, says Campbell wanted ''a more flexible program that could be tailored to parental input.'' Robert Lurie, who operates the current day-care center at Campbell's, said the Campbell's center was upgraded substantially when Kinder-Care left: group sizes were reduced, staff pay increased, and care-givers were placed on salary rather than hourly wages.
I'M NOT BOTHERED AT ALL BY the idea of for-profit child care, but I am put off if they're skimping on services, whether it's food or staffing, to make money,'' says Bank Street's Ellen Galinsky. ''I think parents get sold on Kinder-Care on the basis of the equipment, but they really ought to be looking at the quality of the relationships with the care-givers, which varies a lot from state to state.''
There is little doubt that Kinder-Care provides a higher-quality service than many unlicensed family day-care homes, but the quality of Kinder-Care centers is far from uniform, in part because of wide disparities in state licensing standards. Some states require only a high-school diploma for day-care workers, and others require specific training in early-childhood education. South Carolina requires one adult for every eight infants; Kansas and Maryland require one for every three, according to Work/Family Directions, a child-care consulting concern based in Boston. And Texas requires only one adult for every 17 3-year-olds, but in New York and North Dakota there must be an adult for every seven 3-year-olds.
Kinder-Care accepts the state standards, a policy that has prompted criticism from many child-care experts. ''There is a whole lot of evidence that young children do better in smaller groups, where they can form closer relationships with the adults caring for them,'' Ms. Galinsky says.
Susan Weissman, author of ''The Parents' Guide to Daycare,'' who runs several nonprofit day-care centers in New York City and has visited Kinder-Care in other states, says she believes that having as few care-givers as allowed is the key to Kinder-Care's profits. Ms. Weissman's centers meet New York City's stringent standards, and like other nonprofit New York City centers, lose money. She says, ''They do as little as is allowed by each state. I mean, if good care means no more than six kids to one adult in one place, why don't they stick to that everywhere.''
Hoot Gibson says no single standard for quality day care has been established: ''You can read 20 different opinions of what's the ideal staffing ratio,'' he contends. ''And the states have made reasoned decisions about what is good child care. All we're doing is following their lead.''
Furthermore, he says, Kinder-Care has no choice but to accept local standards if it wishes to keep its prices competitive with other child-care centers in the area. ''You've got a customer base that needs to be served,'' says Mr. Gibson. ''Are you going to say you shouldn't go in there and serve that community because you don't like the state staffing ratios? I don't know how we'd keep our prices competitive if we decided to apply different standards than the other local child-care centers.''
Kinder-Care's prices, though out of reach of poor families (and substantially higher than the cost of care in a neighbor's home) are generally in the middle of the cost spectrum for formal day-care programs. Fees reflect the local market. The Maple Heights, Ohio, prices are in the company's middle range - full-time infant care at $87 a week, and care for a 3-year old at $68. Alabama parents pay substantially less: $60 a week for infant care, $49 for 4-year-olds. Most New Jersey parents pay more, with infant care running up to $125 a week, and 3-year-olds up to $100.
NATIONALLY, CHILD CARE is among the lowest-paid professions, ranking lower even than parking-lot attendants or animal caretakers. Kinder-Care salaries differ from state to state, with New Jersey care-givers starting at $4.80 an hour; those in Alabama begin at only $3.45 an hour, 10 cents above the minimum wage.
One criticism of Kinder-Care in the 1970's and early 80's was that staff turnover was unduly high, and many of the teachers were paid only the minimum wage. These days, the company says, only 8 percent of its employees earn as little as the minimum wage.
''You really should look not just at what we're doing now, but how we've improved, and how we're going to improve,'' says Mr. Gibson. ''Getting consistently good staff people, training them, and keeping them is one of our main priorities. And I can tell you that if we don't do even better at that over the next few years, we will have failed.''
According to Mr. Gibson, Kinder-Care's turnover, like that for day-care centers as a whole, is 40 percent a year for all staff. But, Mr. Gibson says, the figure is significantly lower for center directors, assistant directors and head teachers.
Still, at some Kinder-Care centers, half the staff has been there less than a year, creating enough turmoil that one boy, whose regular teacher had been there only a month - and who was out sick, leaving the group with a substitute teacher - approached a visitor to ask if she were the new teacher. Licensing authorities in several different states say that spot checks of Kinder-Care frequently find the centers in violation of required staff-child ratios.
The turnover problem has been exacerbated by increased opportunities for women in higher-paying, less-traditional jobs. ''Ninety percent of the time, when people leave, it's not to other child-care jobs, but to something outside the field,'' said Ms. Kazi. ''We have started to broaden our recruiting, to attract people who were not looking for jobs. We're talking to senior citizens groups, and putting up signs in grocery stores, to get the attention of moms who wouldn't be looking at the want ads.'' Indeed, Kinder-Care estimates that about 10 percent of its employees are over the age of 55.
Kinder-Care has recruiting advantages over most small day-care centers, including an employee-benefit plan that has been upgraded substantially since Mr. Gibson's arrival, and now boasts dental insurance, tuition assistance and an employee stock-purchase plan. Perhaps even more important, Kinder-Care offers a clearly-defined career path. Charlene Smith, for example, who began teaching 4-year-olds at Kinder-Care in Bristol, Pa., two years ago, became the assistant center director a month later, and then, four months later, the director of a center in Mount Holly, N.J. In May, she became a district manager in charge of 12 Kinder-Care centers.
''When I was getting my degree in early-childhood education, all I wanted to do was teach,'' says Ms. Smith, who is 27. ''Now I could never see myself just teaching, because I like all the other parts of my work so much.''
A third draw, some employees say, is the size and stability of the company. ''The biggest advantage Kinder-Care gives you is the backing of a huge network of people,'' Ms. Kazi says. ''And Kinder-Care offers a lot more equipment and resources than the little non-profit centers. You don't hit the end of the year and find yourself scrounging around for blue construction paper. I've had directors who come from non-profits who tell me they are relieved not to have to worry about whether their paycheck will bounce. It's easier to be a professional when that's all taken care of.''
Professionalization - and standardization - is what Kinder-Care is all about, and what is happening to the child-care industry as a whole. With ever more women working, it is becoming harder all the time to make individualized, informal arrangements for child care. Increasingly, state regulatory bodies are expanding and upgrading their child-care licensing standards, and there is now serious talk about Federal standards for child care.
For most American children, these are probably good developments, moves that will, within the next decade, establish minimum standards for care and eliminate some of the worst day-care facilities.
Kinder-Care may well emerge as the mass answer to the day-care dilemma. But there will always be some parents who will bypass the bell towers with the fake bells, in favor of something slightly less homogenized.
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Tamar Lewin is a national correspondent for The New York Times.
A version of this article appears in print on January 29, 1989, on Page 6006030 of the National edition with the headline: SMALL TOTS, BIG BIZ. Today's Paper|Subscribe