Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

New Project Seeks to Help Thousands of Missouri Child Care Centers Succeed

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

New Project Seeks to Help Thousands of Missouri Child Care Centers Succeed

Article excerpt

About five years ago, Erica Schmitt went shopping for day cares for her son and decided she could do it better.

So she opened a licensed child care in the basement of her St. Louis home. She fed the children nutritious meals with mostly organic, whole foods. She valued relationships with the parents and hosted popular moms' nights out to connect and support them.

Word of mouth spread. Schmitt had many parents wanting to enroll their children. So, in an entrepreneurial tale common to thousands of mom-and-pop child care providers nationwide, she and her husband bought a former barbershop on Arsenal Street and opened Creative Nursery and Preschool, a center licensed for 34 children.

"We went all in," she said of the 2012 move. "I cashed out my retirement accounts, and it is sitting in this building."

Business is brisk, sometimes with a waiting list. But even so, Schmitt, like many other independent child care owners, said staying financially solvent with a relatively small center is a constant worry.

This month, facing a billing error and an expensive air ventilation issue in the preschool classroom, she's had a few dark moments of, "Oh, my God, what was I thinking?"

She wears so many hats chef, maintenance woman, human resources department, billing office, supervisor that she's had to put her goal of becoming a nationally accredited facility on hold for lack of time and cash.

It's a business dilemma common among child cares with fewer than 100 children.

National studies indicate that small independent centers operated mostly by women with a passion for caring for children are burdened by high overhead and feeble finances.

Many are doomed to fail, and ones that do survive can't easily improve even as parents face a shortage of quality care.

And yet small centers represent the majority of child cares in the United States and in Missouri, where "the number of facilities that we have with 40 kids or fewer is shocking," said Carol Scott, chief executive of Child Care Aware of Missouri.

Thanks to a $25,000 startup grant from a local business competition, Child Care Aware is rolling out a new subscription- based Virtual Child Care Business Center to help those centers share services and succeed. The concept offers the same collective business power afforded larger chains and franchises such as KinderCare or the Goddard School.

When fully operational, it will be one of only two statewide child care incubators of its kind in the country.

"Most people who run a child care center, they start it out of the goodness of their heart, but they don't come to it with a business background," Scott said. "What we want to do is help bolster their business skills."

Scott said studies show most small centers lack the cash flow to provide improvements such as professional development for staff. …

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