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If you're a new parent, get ready for the fastest four years of your life.

Over that relatively short span of time, a child develops from a struggling infant to a confident, socially acclimated pre-schooler ready to take on kindergarten and the world. What happens in between is what KidWorks is all about. We view a child's development in terms of a spectrum. At one end, a child's needs are fairly primitive. Nutrition, a clean dry bum, a nice warm place to have a nap, some fun things to look at and play with. Slowly, those needs give way to more complex fundamentals. Social interaction, recognizing shapes and colors, identifying letters and numbers, creative expression, language skills. At the end, if all goes as planned, is a child fully prepared for entry to Kindergarten.

Hey! What Happened To That Adorable Little Baby!?

Age Three is a phenomenal transitional age for a child. They enter this key age as cute, (maybe a little ornery) waddling tikes. Kindergarten is light years away. Twelve months later- Oh my God!- Kindergarten's around the corner. Somehow in the span of twelve months your child seems more like a little kid and less like a little baby.They've only got a year to be ready! It's panic time....

Have you done the right thing?

Is your little one going to be able to walk into that big kindergarten class and do well?

The good news is, they'll do fine. Whether they went to KidWorks, or another quality center, or if they stayed at home with Mom or Dad, Kindergarten really is just the start of formal education. And, if you remember Kindergarten yourself, you'll recall there was quite a bit of playing, running around, snacking and napping thrown in there, too.

So, what does a quality preschool do? Well,  it makes it possible for you to earn a living and give your family financial security. Someday that little bundle of joy will be choosing a college and it would be nice to be able to afford it. For your child, it provides a nice, clean, safe, fun, nurturing and stimulating environment. As children near Kindergarten age, a quality preschool begins to build the social and intellectual skill sets necessary to make the transition to school comfortably and with confidence.

The Power Of Play ( Also known as "All that money for what?")

Every good parent at some point looks at that huge monthly outlay for child care expense and wonders if they're doing the right thing. Is it enough that their child has a nice place to spend the workday? For that kind of money and time, shouldn't they be learning something? I don't mean the stuff they get from playing with others and interacting with their environment and learning their numbers and letters. I mean really super jumbo advanced learning, like maybe being able to compose a piano sonata, or name all of the heads of state in alphabetical order, or speak fluent Japanese?  

If you’ve looked around KidWorks, it’s obvious right away that the typical trappings of a "classroom" are conspicuously absent in all but our Pre-K rooms. Young children don't need to be confined to a desk or isolated in a boxy room in order to learn. Research, and our own experience, has taught us that children do much better in a space that is organic, dynamic and engaging to the senses. For us old folks, learning requires a conscious effort. It's like work. Kids don't make that switch; it's all folded into their daily experiences. As long as they're engaged, they're learning, and they really enjoy it. Our job is to keep them engaged, and progressively introduce broader and more complex concepts through a balance of formal curriculum, guided play and free play.

Does this sound like an excuse for not teaching your two year old how to start his own hedge fund? Maybe, but the truth is that young children learn best through a balance of guided, structured play, formal instruction, and free play.

Curriculum

Beginning with the one-year-olds, we use a professional learning curriculum by two leading providers, HighReach and Mother Goose Time. These robust programs provide developmentally appropriate activities, daily lesson plans and integrated themes. Our Pre-K curriculum is one grade level advanced over a standard four year old program.

If we and you as partners have done our jobs, the first day of Kindergarten goes like this: Your child strides into the new elementary school like she owns the place, pausing for a moment to watch with curiosity the inevitable crying child/crying parent scene in the hallway. She walks directly up to her new teacher, introduces herself and politely asks where her desk is. Ready to go from Day One. Good manners, good social skills, good academic preparation. Your basic dream-kid for a Kindergarten teacher.

KidWorks Pre-K Curriculum Vs. VPK

For the past twelve years, our Pre-K classes have been taught the High Reach Learning HILS curriculum. This curriculum is intended for Kindergarten age students and is one full grade level advanced from a standard 4 Year Old curriculum. It is intended to be an accelerated, more challenging and more academically rigorous program, because our experience shows that our students can handle it. We begin laying the foundation for it in our two year old classes.

We  contacted the Florida Department Of Education and the Alachua County Early Learning Coalition (the agency which administers VPK locally) and asked them if our Silver Star curriculum met VPK standards..

 Their determination was that our current Silver Star curriculum cannot be approved per VPK standards because it teaches concepts and skill sets that in their opinion are too advanced and therefore not age appropriate for four year olds. They would require that we step down one grade level to an approved 4 year old curriculum.

Based upon many years of strong feedback from graduated Silver Star parents, we know our program does an outstanding job of preparing children for Kindergarten, and our graduates already possess many of the skills being taught to their peers for the very first time. If your hope is that your child will fast-track into a gifted program when they enter grade school, it makes sense to us to give them that jump-start now.

 There are two advantages to the VPK program: 1) Parents enjoy reduced tuition, and 2) the school gains immediate access to a large pool of children receiving the subsidy to fill enrollment. If neither of those things are important to you, KidWorks' Silver Stars receive a program that, according to the folks who run VPK,  is more  academically advanced than anything taught in any VPK class anywhere in Florida. We believe VPK is a valuable program that serves a legitimate need, but we won't lower our standards or reduce our expectations of your child in order to participate in VPK.

Why Our Classes Rotate

Here's a good example of what happens when parents design a preschool for their own children. Way back when we were laying out what would become the Millhopper school for our then three and one year old boys (now both in their twenties), I was a little bummed that we were creating all of these cool spaces  but the kids were going to be stuck in one classroom all day. "They could rotate!", Cathy suggested. "I'll create a schedule and the kids can move around the school with their teachers to different centers all day. Everybody will get to play with everything."  It sounded good to me, mainly because I wasn't the one who had to figure it all out, and it works. So well in fact that when it came time to design the Tioga school, class rotations for ages 2 and up were built in from the first sketch.

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A  rotation schedule from the Tioga school.

Food For Thought

We  like the idea of shared meals and some common areas and open kitchens so the children develop a sense of community that extends beyond a classroom and classmates. Our schools always have a greatroom for meals, rather than having the children eat in an assigned classroom every day and having the meals wheeled into the rooms on a hospital cart. It's the same reason your kitchen is the social hub of your home

We use meal time to establish and reinforce good table manners and hygiene. In the older classes, children help with serving and clean up, and all of the children are taught to wash hands before meals, wait for their entire table to be served before eating, say "please" when requesting seconds, and clear their own plates when finished.

Starting in the summer of 2013, we decided to improve our food program. We:

  • Reduced our use of canned vegetables and fruits by 90%, and replaced them with fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits, and supplemented with frozen vegetables..
  • Switched our breads and buns to whole grain or multigrain.
  • Greatly reduced our use of processed proteins in favor of whole muscle products.
  • Eliminated pre-sweetened cereals
  • Switched to an all-natural line of deli meats.
  • Replaced some meat based protien for plant based protien
  • Eliminated shredded iceberg lettuce in favor of fresh Romain that we shred in-house

We've also focused our menu planning to strike a daily balance of fast burning and slow burning foods to avoid blood sugar spikes and crashes and help the children's attention and mood.

Recently, we received an unexpected compliment from our food service representative. Of all of the preschools and childcare centers in her territory, which encompasses Gainesville and the surrounding areas, KidWorks is one of only two schools that orders any fresh produce, and of all the schools she services, KidWorks buys more high-end, unprocessed food products than anyone. I have the bills to prove it! In fact our previous and current food service representatives both enrolled their own children here.

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Good News! We're Not Great At Being "Business People".

This may come as a surprise, because today we own really nice, very successful preschools with high demand, high family and employee retention and zero advertising, but our approach would give the typical corporate childcare book-keeper a heart attack.. 

Back in 1997 when our first school was in its infancy, the school's "budget" (I put that in quotes because there really wasn't one) was the subject of many dinner table conversations. A lot of our key expenses, for payroll, food costs, and curriculum blew through the accepted "indusrty averages" by quite a bit. I felt we needed to cut expenses and boost enrollment to keep up. I suggested we really rein in payroll and food costs and do some serious advertising. Cathy wasn't buying it. She suggested that maybe all of the centers that we refused to accept for our first child, and led us to create KidWorks in the first place, probably were responsible for those "industry averages"."Take whatever you planned on spending for radio and TV ads and let me spend it on keeping the teachers happy and the kids happy. The enrollment will take care of itself." 

Of course she was immediately proven correct and everything worked out fine.

Okay, that didn't happen..

What actually happened in those early years is that we had to sell our home and downsize by half, sell a vacation condo, liquidate the kid's Florida Pre Paid College Plans, liquidate all of our investment accounts, and max out our credit cards. I kept my job with benefits and managed the school's books in the evenings. Cathy drew no pay for the first three years, and most weekends were spent as a family up at the school, cleaning, decorating, making repairs or remodeling. The early years were literally a black hole in terms of how much money the school absorbed, and the rate at which it absorbed it.

It was definitely tempting to consider taking state and local subsidies since it would have immediately alleviated a lot of the financial pressure, but it wouldn't have been consistent with the program we'd envisioned. Eventually, about three years in, the program clicked and word-of-mouth was strong enough to keep us topped out.

Why Aren't There More KidWorks?

We get this question a lot. Why haven't we expanded locally, or considered creating a national franchise? Because we struggle non-stop to maintain the quality of the two centers we currently have. Spreading ourselves thinner is simply not an option as long as we care about maintaining our standards and our reputation. The stuff that makes a good preschool program good doesn't come in a bottle.

A Little Inside Information...

There are two ways to run a preschool. The most common way seems to be to focus heavily and exclusively on expenses. You do this by setting hard target numbers for the big stuff like payroll and food cost. Then you incentivize your Director to come in under those target numbers by bonus. You pay your Directors little in salary, inducing them to make up the difference by chasing bonus money. This inevitably creates an us vs. them environment for staff, where the Director is intensly focused on saving as much money as possible, trimming payroll by combining classes whenever possible and as soon as possible, and sending the "extra" teachers home early. This results in continuously packed classes (not great for the kids) and often shorts teachers on their hours (not great for morale) but does, at least in the short term, produce a better profit margin. They're incentivized to "work" the school's sick policy as well. Every child they can send home early but still collect tuition for is more profit, since it helps reduce class sizes and by extension payroll. There is no gray area or case by case evaluation, and no consideration for the hardship repeated missed time from work represents to the family.

Not surprisingly, those centers cannot stay full relying on word of mouth, because disenchanted families are heading for the exits much more rapidly than they can be replaced by new families drawn in by advertising and marketing. The "answer" ? More advertising! This is money that is now unavailable for teacher pay, or classroom supplies and equipment, or anything else that might improve the experience of the children already enrolled. The result is often a quality death-spiral. Soon the caliber of families and children the center is forced to accept deteriorates to the point that good families won't come near the place. Good teachers won't stay in those conditions for long. Bad teachers replace them.

There are a couple of give-aways that a center may have these issues.

  • It's an established center but still adverstising on TV, radio, pay-per-click Google ads or by direct mail. Or it has a large institutional presence in local media events and sponsorships, all of which costs money that's being redirected from the program.
  • The solicitations state both "Now Enrolling!" as well as "Limited Spaces Available!" (Obviously no center spends money to advertise or try to fill "limited spaces". The center realizes that without also claiming limited space, it appears that by advertising at all it's having trouble staying full. Which it undoubtedly is.)
  • The center avails itself of every possibly subsidy buts still seems to be under enrolled and under funded.
  • The furnishings, toys, equipment and facility seem universally, excessively worn or in need of repair.
  • The teachers look downtrodden or overwhelmed.
  • You're getting the feeling of a "hard sell" by the Director during the tour.
  • There is no wait for a space, even in their infant and one year old rooms.
  • They don't ask you why you're unhappy at your current center. A good center wants to be sure that they'll be able to meet your expectations before offering a space. If the complaint is "he gets sick too much" or "there's a biter in his class" or "we don't like the teacher in the next aged class", those are issues that can affect any center to a degree and warrant some follow up questions. Have you met with the Director about your concerns? How did the meeting go? Was there any follow up?
  • The center use a computerized sign-in system. The main selling point vendors of these systems make is payroll cost control. The system is continuously comparing the number of children signed in with the number of staff clocked in and flagging classes that are below the teacher/child ratio so they can be combined and staff can be sent home.
  • They have a security keypad but their DCF inspector is not given the code for random inspections. (This buys the center some extra time to right any wrongs before the inspector actually gains entry. Our inspectors have our access codes.)

Also not surprisingly, Directors in centers like these are allowed zero discretion on new enrollment. If a family walks through the door with a checkbook, they get the space. Even if the center doesn't have the space, they sell the space anyway and figure it out later. If the kid is a little monster, or the parents smell like a weed farm, no problem. When we opened the first school, our own one year old and three year old attended, and I can promise you we were very picky about who we enrolled. We still are. Our approach has always been to focus on running a good program, charging for a good program, and letting the expenses take care of themselves.

KidWorks is also fairly unique in our approach to local (VPK, ELC) or federal (USDA Food) subsidy programs. We don't participate in any of them, because we want the autonomy to enroll and operate the schools without being beholden to another entity for money, and we want to avoid burdening our staff with the added bureacracy, which is substantial.

We also totally blew it when building the new Tioga school. Conventional wisdom in center design is to squeeze every square inch out of the buidling as "rateable space". (Center capacity is governed by allocating 35 square feet per child. Rateable space is the total square footage of the facility less bathrooms, hallways, kitchens, lobbys and storage areas and permanent fixtures like countertops and cabinets.) 

We messed Tioga all up with big wide hallways, a snazzy two story atrium lobby, a soaring skylit greatroom, lots of storage space  and ....wait for it...walls. Yes, conventional center design eliminates as many walls as possible because their footprint reduces rateable space. It also favors massive high-capacity class rooms with moveable furniture as space dividers over smaller individual classrooms. Dropping your toddler off in one of these giant rooms is like dropping a grape in a blender.

Update: In 2016 the Florida Legislature decided to close this loophole by implementing a stringent group size limit in addition to the existing class ratio limit, for any center that receives state (VPK) or local (ELC) subsidies, and that's pretty much every center in Gainesville but us. As a result many centers with massive one room toddler farms are scrambling to reconfigure their interior spaces to accomplish what we've always known to be the right thing to do in the first place.

The Tioga school building may well be the least revenue-optimized, most gorgeous, inviting and comfortable preschool in northern Florida. (In case you were starting to feel sorry  for us, it does pretty well in revenue despite its many, many design flaws.)

What We've Learned Over The Past 20 Years About Teachers:

We're very fortunate to have several core teachers who have been with us for many years. Many with over five years tenure, and some in the double digits. Here's what we discovered: Grumpy, underpaid people do not make great teachers. It doesn't matter how experienced they are, or how many credentials they hold. If they're stressed out and miserable, the children will be too. So as owners very early on we set out to determine what makes teachers happy and how to keep them that way. (Hint: Treat them with respect and pay them fairly).

Here's what we've learned:

  • They don't want their hours cut so the school can save money on payroll. A standard industry practice is to continuously combine classes throughout the day to maintain full ratio and reduce payroll expense by sending teachers home as early as possible. (Many centers also work actively to send children home "sick" to reduce their numbers and combine classes.) So one teacher gets loaded up with a full class, and one teacher loses hours and pay. Two grumpy people. Not good for the kids. Our teachers work their scheduled hours irrespective of daily enrollment. If class loads are especially light, we may combine to give teachers planning time, or cleaning assignments, but never to save payroll.
  • They need the center's owners to be willing to sacrifice revenue and discharge familes who are verbally abusive to them, or children who are excessively aggressive and a danger to staff and to other children. We beleve that if you want a school filled with nice families and good kids, you have to be willing to let tuition revenue go in some cases. In most corporate centers and in many private centers it's considered sacrilege to turn tuition money away under any circumstance. The teachers are simply expected to tough it out.
  • They'd like to be paid for their lunch break. Standard practice is to require teachers to clock out and leave the building for their break.  By doing so, the center can get an extra hour at the end of the day out of each teacher without risking having to give overtime pay. Our teachers are paid through lunch. And speaking of overtime...
  • They'd like overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 in a week. Standard practice, expecially at corporate centers, is to "audit" time sheets as necessary to reflect no more than 40 hours a week, regardless of actual hours worked. Not only is it a crappy thing to do in our opinion, it's also illegal.
  • They'd like to be able to bring their own preschoolers to the center, and still bring home a decent paycheck. The industry standard is a 15% employee discount. We give our teachers a 75% starting discount that becomes a 95% discount with tenure. (The 5% represents our costs for food and supplies). We've learned that teachers who have their own children in the program tend to be actively,  fully vested in the quality of the school. With tenure, our teachers receive free childcare.
  • They'd like a raise every year. The industry standard is a 2.5% increase, or around.25 cents an hour per year. Many centers, citing the economy, have stopped giving increases altogether. We've always given a 5% increase each year, and we did so during each year of the recent recession, including years when we did not increase tuition rates.
  • They appreciate some benefits. We offer Group Health, Dental, Paid Holidays, up to 3 weeks Paid Time Off per year and a 401k with company match.
  • They'd like a stake in the school's success. In 2016 we paid out over $15,000 in profit sharing bonuses to our teachers and directors.
  • They don't like uniforms. They find them degrading. It seems like a small thing but you'd be surprised how much of a morale booster being able to dress comfortably and individually is. From a marketing standpoint, a branded, uniformed staff looks more appealling to prospective parents, but we think brands are for cattle. Visit a Bojangles Fried Chicken restaurant and you'll see employees in logo'd polo shirts, Visit a school and you won't. Our teachers have a dress code, but no uniforms.
  • They'd appreciate an opportunity to make some extra money once in awhile, so we give our trusted employees the keys to our schools to run their own weekend sitting servce. "Parents Nights Out"  are held for every Gator football home game, and for a shopping day over the holidays and a date night for Valentines Day.  Every cent earned goes directly to the staff working the event.
  • They'd like the owners to remember that at the end of the day, they're the people doing the real work, and they have the single greatest impact on the children in their care.

When you tour KidWorks or any center, pay close attention to the disposition of the teachers and the nature of their interactions with the children.While it's always possible to catch someone on a bad day, it should be a rarity.

The KidWorks Story

We are a local Gainesville family, and KidWorks is our family business. Back In 1996, our eldest son was three and his younger brother was one. We wanted a "dream" preschool for them. Cathy, the school's director, held a degree in elementary education and intended to return to teaching. She spent weeks touring area preschools. No "dream" centers. Plenty of nightmare ones. They all smelled like pee, the employees looked like escapees from a women's prison and the kids seemed  miserable. (Granted, we were as it turned out extremely nervous and over-protective first-time parents. It's possible the centers weren't quite as horrible as we imagined.)

In a moment of questionable sanity we asked why we couldn't create our own dream preschool. We couldn't think of a good reason. (We can think of a few now, but that's a different story) The result was KidWorks, considered by the Gainesville community to be among the very finest preschools in the region.

We opened our first center in 1997. A "dream" preschool? It's as close as we can come, and we get better at it every day. In 2000, KidWorks became the first area preschool to offer live internet webcams in the classrooms.  In 2005 the KidWorks family doubled with the addition of our second school, located in Tioga Town Center. KidWorks at Tioga is a great example of a high-concept design collaboration between a really good preschool program and a first-rate developer. In 2009, we completed construction of a new high tech facility exclusively for our APK Program. In 2010, our Millhopper school's APK room received a complete remodel and technology upgrade.

As working owners, we run our own schools, every day (which is why there aren't more KidWorks). Having working owners on site can mean the difference between a good preschool and a great one.

The Cameras...

KidWorks was born in the digital age just as the internet was ramping up. We've always used technology to keep our parents more connected to their children, because even a little uncertainty about your child's welfare is the worst stress you can endure. You simply cannot give your best at work if you're worried about your child.

You'll typically spend five or ten minutes at your preschool for drop off and again at pick-up, so it can be difficult to get an accurate understanding of what your child is up to all day, and the information you do get is filtered through the staff and management. Schools with live, internet-accessible cams by their nature reflect an extremely high level of confidence in their program, facility and teachers. Over the years I've spoken with owners of other schools whose main concern is that if they had cameras they'd be bombarded with calls from concerned parents all day long.

That really hasn't been our experience. We do occasionally get calls, especially from new familes in their first few weeks, but if anything the cameras have served to reduce parent anxiety overall.

We're one of only two centers in Gainesville with live web monitoring, and the only center that installs, designs, maintains and hosts its own camera network. We use a high resolution camera by StarDot that function as their own servers, so our images are not being transmitted out to a centralized server off site. Instead, parents log into the camera itself. Each camera is expensive, at over $1,100 a piece, but they are the best solution for the centers we've found..

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A half sized screen grab from one of our webcams, viewable on any PC, Tablet or Smartphone

Who Is KidWorks For?

KidWorks is centered around the concept of providing an outstanding preschool experience to children of families with working parents. To that end we are open more days each year and for longer hours each day than other centers which may exist more to provide part-time enrichment programs to families who don't necessarily require full time care. As a result, we don't offer part-time or part-day programs. We recommend several of the area's church-affiliated centers, or Montessori schools to families looking for part time programs. We recommend  The Academy at The Family Church, Stepping Stones at Holy Trinity, and Westside Baptist.

Don't Take Our Word For It.

Ask your friends, neighbors and co-workers about KidWorks. We've been in Gainesville since 1997 so chances are they've heard about us. We give waitlist priority to referrals from existing and prior families, so by all means, name drop when you tour.

The Gainesville Moms Discussion forum has frequent mentions of our schools by real, actual  (not anonomous) people . Here's a link to search of all mentions of KidWorks on that site:

http://www.gainesvillemoms.com/main/search/search?q=kidworks

About Our Waitlist

We don't maintain a chronological waitlist. Instead, we have a waiting pool of families who have expressed interest. When a space becomes available, we go to the waitlist for a  new child who will best fit the mix of the existing class. For example, we'll want a child of roughly the same age, since we keep the children grouped according to when they'll enter Kindergarten. 

Next, we look at the waiting families to find children that are the best fit for the class. Amongst the eligible families, we give preference to those referred by existing clients. We will keep you on file unless and until a space becomes available for you. However, once a space has been offered to you and it is declined, we'll remove you from further consideration.

Please note that we do not accept waitlist entries or confirm availability by telephone. Prior to being placed on the waitlist, please schedule and complete a tour. If possible, both parents should attend as well as your child.  After your tour, if you would like to be added to the school's waitlist we can do so at that time. KidWorks will never charge you a fee to be on our waitlist.

Our Deposit Policy

After touring, and if space is projected to be available for your requested start date and offered to you, we require a deposit to hold the space. For short term holds on a space (two weeks or less) we require a non refundable $120 deposit.

For longer holds for all classes except Infants, we require a non-refundable deposit equal to the enrollment fee plus two weeks tuition.

For Infants, we require a non refundable $1000 deposit. Depending on how far out your start date is, the rate may change during that period and your rate will be the current rate at the time of enrollment.

Need to know more?

Make an appointment and tour the school most convenient to you. Call Julie Cabellero at 352 335-1335 (Northwest)  or Meredith Roche at 352 331-3833 (Tioga). We'd love to show you around and introduce you to the best preschool teaching teams in Gainesville.

 

   

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