As a working mother of two, Jo Kirchner identified with the growth goals of the founders of Primrose Schools — shifting their half-day preschools to full-day child care facilities that offered high-quality preschool.
“They were really seeing a shift with professional working women who needed to go back to work and were looking for quality care,” Kirchner says.
She joined the organization in 1988 as a consultant to assist with the shift. Now, serving as president and CEO, she continues to modify the school’s model to grow the Acworth, Ga.-based company, which now encompasses 235 schools in 17 markets.
Smart Business sat down with Kirchner at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how Primrose Schools continues to innovate its model using feedback for curriculum improvements.
Q: How do you engage your constituents to identify their needs?
In the beginning, it was a lot of consumer research — research studies that we were doing or outsourced research companies that would do surveys for us. But today, social media has enabled us to engage with them directly. Not necessarily the children, but with the staffs, with the parents, with the franchise owners and the people in the communities that we serve. We’re able, through social media, to connect to them beautifully. They’ll tell us exactly what they want.
Q: How do you gather and filter feedback to find the best ideas?
Our franchise owners are very savvy with social media. They have a tendency to funnel those innovative ideas up that they’re getting in their local markets, because the franchise owners (and) the parents have relationships. … So either via social media or via direct, the parents are giving them ideas and best practices or recommendations.
An innovative idea that comes from the field, we’ll test it in our school and we’ll test it in the field. Then we roll it out. … The best way to make an idea really stick and be imbedded in the organization is to engage the franchise owners in developing it, and then launch it in a consistent way where you’ve worked out all the bugs.
For example: music. We knew there was a weakness in the music program that we had because we were getting feedback from parents via social media and because when we were assessing the skill sets of the children they were weak in the music area. So we went back and found a partner out in the marketplace that had a fabulous music program … and embedded it into our curriculum.
Q: How do you assess students to evaluate the curriculum?
We pre-assess and post-assess the children in the four- and five-year-old programs so we can see through this assessment research how well the children are progressing. And if there’s an area that they’re not getting what they need, we’re then that next year working on embedding it in the curriculum and rolling it out.
We are the only for profit education company in America that’s delivering exactly the same curriculum in every school, every week, every day, every year. And so if we know it’s not a teacher, it’s not the room and it’s not the child, then it’s the curriculum (that’s the problem) if we see something consistently across the country.
Q: What role does technology play in innovating curriculum?
For instance, we’re Skyping in the four-year-old classrooms with children in China. We’re bringing iPads into our after-school program to begin to work with children with the iPads, really using technology as much as we can.
Q: Where do you see the future of Primrose Schools?
I had an opportunity to visit Dubai to accredit the American International School. And while our plan is to double the size of the company here in the United States in the next five to six years, it became really apparent to me at the American International School that I visited that there was a great opportunity for preschools in other countries.
We’re getting people contacting us because obviously education is a driving force for the future work force, and all the research says that brain development in the first five years has a significant impact on a child’s learning and life skills. So early childhood education is really becoming well-recognized as a very vital component, yet most countries don’t have a proven model for that. So what’s next for us is to start researching international and beginning to look at how we’ll deliver in an international market.