Read the full transcript of our podcast with Louise Stoney on the possibilities for using shared services in your preschool.
Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“
In episode 52 of the show, we are in conversation with Louise Stoney, co-founder of Opportunities Exchange and the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance. Louise has worked with state and local governments, foundations, ECE providers, industry intermediaries, as well as research and advocacy groups in over 40 states in the U.S. In our conversation, we learn about an exciting new approach to early care and education program management called Shared Services. Louise explains that whether you are a non-profit or for-profit, center- or home-based provider, Shared Services is a framework that can help you achieve quality leadership on the business side as well as in teaching and learning.
If you are a Director (or aspiring to be one) we hope that you are inspired by this different approach to running your center. So, stay tuned for this episode of the preschool podcast!
Louise, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Thanks, I’m happy to be here. Thanks for interviewing me.
It’s our pleasure. And we’re here today with you to talk about shared services. So you’re helping of the early-childhood education field achieve financial sustainability and strong child outcomes through shared services. Let’s start with the question of, what is shared services?
So, essentially, shared services is a way for early education programs and practitioners to be big where big matters small where small matters. So we know that what matters in terms of teaching and learning with kids is relationships. We know what matters in terms of effective teaching is reflective practice, which means that you’ve got some time to pause and think and work with a skilled supervisor. So all of those things really push us in the direction of the benefits of small, but if you’re too small you can’t generate the resources that you need to really do the job well, to pay staff well, to have good benefits and good wages to have supervision and to have staff that can really focus on both teaching and learning and focus on business management.
So what shared services is about is saying, “What’s the organizational structure? What’s the business structure that will actually help you to attain this?” We kind of have a little a formula: We say that high quality is pedagogical leadership – which is the teaching and learning – plus business leadership, which is all those functions around keeping the money coming in the door and being able to have good systems and structures and work environments. Those two ingredients are essential to high quality, and oftentimes what we find is programs can do one but not the other. And many times it’s simply because they’re just too small and under-resourced or they haven’t really thought strategically about how to change the way they operate their programs.
Yeah, that’s interesting because we see that a lot at HiMama, too, where programs are either very strong on the pedagogical side or very strong on the business side and lacking in the other. Why do you think that is?
Well, again, I think if you think about it for a minute these are almost antithetical skills. I happen to be really good at sitting in front of a computer, looking at Excel spreadsheets, thinking conceptually, and I could spend my whole day doing that and I’m happy as a clam. You put me in a classroom of toddlers? Oh my god, I couldn’t do it. And it’s not that I don’t love children – it’s not my skill set. I have many friends and colleagues who are awesome early-care and education educators, or really good reflective supervisors… just really skilled at leading, teaching and learning, at observing children, at helping teachers reflect. But they couldn’t do an Excel spreadsheet to save their life. They just don’t think in that way.
And so part of it is antithetical skills. Another part of it is time. There just are not enough hours in the day to do all of these tasks. And really the third thing is that mastery of something comes from the ability to focus on it. If you do something just a little bit of your time you’re never going to be able to get really good at it. When you do something over and over, when you have the luxury of going deeper into that one function – or that one or two functions, you know, that area of expertise – you’re able to really function at a higher level. So that’s what we call “economies of specialization”, that you actually get a bigger bang for your buck when somebody is focused on a particular job and does it well than where you’ve got one person who’s trying to do ten things.
Yeah, that makes sense. Now if we put shared services into perspective, how does it work? How does it help me as a director of a childcare organization create high quality pedagogical and business leadership?
Well, you know, it’s funny. If I were in front of you and I were showing you a visual, I have several visuals of people whose body parts are taken apart because they’re trying to do so many different things at once: one hands holding a ball or a book to help kids and another one’s holding a suitcase and a briefcase and trying to work on a computer. And the bottom line is, what we’re trying to do is to make the job of being an early-care and education leader make sense. Make it reasonable. When I look at the job description for a childcare director, I want to cry. It’s completely unreasonable to expect a person to do all of those things, and to do them well. And then if you add into that the wages that we were able to pay that person, it’s ridiculous. So I think one of the first and most important things that’s of value to the field is to say, “We want you to have a job that is doable, that is reasonable, that is not stressing you out, that is making you feel like you’re making a contribution.”
And so we actually have this kind of mantra, and it goes like this: We believe that every director deserves an administrative team. We believe that every teacher deserves pedagogical leadership or reflective leadership. And we believe that every child deserves a reflective teacher. And so it’s a food chain that goes all the way down: When your leaders are stressed out they don’t have time to provide supervision to their classroom teachers. When classroom teachers don’t have supervision or time they’re not able to teach effectively in the classroom. When they’re not able to teach effectively in the classroom, children lose. So we’re trying to really take apart this business and put it together in a whole new way, and that new way is through teams, through communities, not independent small businesses that are out there on their own.
And I’m sure as an administrator or leader of a childcare organization that resonates with a lot of our listeners because I’m sure people do feel quite alone sometimes in the volume and scope of work that they have to do, as you say. And so the idea of having a peer group and a community and a team to work on those challenges together I think would be appealing.
Correct. And then there’s another issue, too, beyond just even the human resources. It’s also the investments, the industry investments. So if you think for a minute: Why is it that we’re able to drive into a gas station and put a plastic card into a machine and pump gas, and take that same card and swipe it when we go to the grocery store, and take that same card and put it into a machine and get cash? Because the financial institutions in this country collaborated on a system that allows us to use that card. So there are times when competing interest industries… the same thing for airline industry, why I can go to a website that shows me all the different airlines and I can figure out what’s my schedule going to be on multiple airlines. So the bottom line is that there’s a long history in many industries of thinking strategically about what infrastructure is shared, what resources are shared, how do we think strategically about how we come together as an industry, and it doesn’t have to get in the way of sort of the basic principles of competition. And we haven’t done that in the early-care and education field, and as a result I think we’re really stymied in terms of our capacity to deliver what we need to do.
Yeah, that’s an interesting way to look at it. I always like when we can look to other industries and other case studies and bring that back to childcare and early-childhood education. And taking that a step further, in practice what are some examples of things that I would work with other organizations to get the benefits of shared services?
So, you know, when I do talk essentially of shared services I often show a slide that has kind of an arrow, and it shows different entry points for shared services, and just to underscore that life is not linear. And so people don’t always… it’s not like you start at Step One and you go to Step Three. People start wherever it makes sense for them. But I want to just walk through a little bit what those entry points are so you get a sense of how it works.
The first and sort of easiest entry point is what we call “shared resources”. And when I use the word “We” what I’m really referring to is the shared services movement, writ large. So I do not take credit for this stuff. I’m one of the folks that’s leading it but there are many, many really smart people all across the country that are working collaboratively on this stuff. So anyway, in terms of shared resources we’ve worked with a company that has thought a lot about what you can scale on the web for many small businesses. And this company actually started working with carpet stores and lighting stores and bicycle stores. And they actually approached us to help the early-care and education industry create a website that allowed them to share resources. And that’s called ECE [Early Childhood Education] Shared Resources, or the ECE Knowledge Hub. And it was built by a company called CCA Global Partners, or CCA For Social Good, actually, is the arm that does the nonprofit work. And that’s a really interesting site – it’s shared now by I think 26 states in the District of Columbia. So they all share the cost of managing it.
And it includes… I mean, oh my gosh, probably over close to 4,000 resources that basically help early-care and education programs and practitioners do their job easier and faster. A downloadable family handbook you can easily adapt, a downloadable employee handbook you can easily adapt, templates for budgets and all sorts of stuff like that. For teachers it’s like this downloadable temple, and print out the labels they might use in classrooms, or links so that they could go to a zoo and watch when animals are being fed, or different links to curricula ideas. So there’s just a boatload of resources on this website.
So what we’ve done is say, “What can be scaled on the web? How do we use the web smartly?” So that’s one piece, and that’s a really helpful, low-hanging fruit. And so what you can do if you go to the Opportunities Exchange website is take a look if that site is… if you happen to be in one of those 27 states, go to the site. Sign up, see what it takes. Some states have a membership fee. Others have been able to get third-party funding to underwrite it, so it’s actually free for providers. So that varies based on the support from the state. But it’s pretty inexpensive for everyone. So that’s shared resources.
Then you can get into one or two shared resources in a back office. So it’s not a comprehensive back office, but it’s one or two things. And an example of that would be in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has created an alliance called the Statewide Early Learning Alliance in New Hampshire, and they actually worked with a property management company, interestingly enough. And that company offers a whole host of services like facility management supports; they offer some I.T. supports; they’re starting to work with some help with creating some systems for supporting enrollment. Also New Hampshire links this to the shared services website that I described, but through this property management company they’ve been able to deepen some of the offerings. So for example they can do bulk billing of mulch. They can do bulk billing of fuel oil and electricity, which is really interesting, to get lower rates for that. And they’re able to extend some that offering to some of the staff people inside the early-childhood programs.
So that’s an example of one or two shared resources. Another one, by the way: some other airlines have done things like sharing floaters or sharing a maintenance person – a janitor, that kind of stuff. And then you go further along the spectrum and you get into deeper, real staff-sharing alliances. And here’s where you look at structures that are really sort of taking apart the leadership roles and saying, “Okay, let’s have staff that are responsible for the business side of things, business leadership; staff that are responsible for the teaching-and-learning, pedagogical leadership. And let’s not expect all of that to be in one person’s job.”
And so they’ve really created MOU’s [memorandums of understanding], or new governance structures like, perhaps, a limited liability corporation at the centers or homes all joined. And through those kinds of structures they’ve been able to do things like share, actually, staff to do their billing and their fee collection, or their reporting to funders, compliance reporting, compliance monitoring, or fundraising. They’ve been able to share… they’ve been able to pull some of those tasks away from site directors so that the site directors can serve as pedagogical leaders and really be in the classroom doing observations and teaching and learning. In some cases they’ve been able to share education coordinators.
So there’s a lot a range of options, but you’re sort of getting the drift here of how you can go deeper and deeper and deeper into… so to give you an example of some of the deepest, most extensive shared service alliances: in Seattle, Washington there’s an interesting organization called Sound Childcare Solutions. They hold six childcare licenses. They have, I think, about 28 classrooms throughout the city. Some of their classrooms are in the poorest neighborhoods of Seattle, and some of their classrooms are in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Seattle. They’re all linked by a central back office called the Casita. They have dual language programs… they just do awesome work. And they have really thought a lot about, “What can we share? What makes sense to do individually at our sites so that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts?”
And there’s even another example of a deeper shared-service alliance, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This one is really interesting: It includes three charter schools that actually cover from kindergarten all the way up to Eighth Grade, as well as center-based and home-based early-childhood providers, afterschool programs, deep parent engagement with probably I think close to 50 different funding streams, again all linked by a common back office and a set of common core values and a pedagogical approach. So it’s just really interesting what can be done when you start thinking differently about, “How do we manage a program?”
Yeah, it sounds like there’s a lot of value there. And clearly all these different shared services alliances across the U.S. are different. They’re at different stages. You mentioned sort of the research stage, back office and staff sharing. And I suppose dependent on where those alliances are they may be at different points. And I’m pretty sure that people can go to Opportunities-Exchange.org to go find out where some of those existing shared service alliances are, is that correct?
Correct. And let me just say that the URL is Opportunitites-Exchange.org [emphasizing the dash]. And you’ll go there, you can click on a page that says “Alliances In Action”, and there’s little dots and you can click them and it’ll pop up a profile so you can see what that particular alliance does. There’s a separate map for shared services on the web so you can see what states have it and actually it’ll show you who to contact. So there’s a boatload of information there.
And what if I go to that map in my area there’s no existing shared services alliance, but I’m thinking to myself, “This sounds like it could be a really helpful tool for my organization and maybe I’ve talked to some other directors or administrators, principals in my area, and they’ve also been talking about this idea of sharing resources.” Can I start my own alliance? Or how does that work?
Sure. What I would suggest is, I would encourage folks that are thinking about shared services and want to know more to spend some time poking around on the website there. We’ve worked really hard to make it user-friendly. And then also do not hesitate to shoot off an email to myself or any of our other partners at Opportunities Exchange, and there are our names and our emails and our pictures – it’s all there on the website. But we’re very… our goal is to respond to questions. Our goal is to encourage people to roll up their sleeves and get involved in this work. You can also sign up for… there’s a social media way to connect and learn about different and new things that are coming up, and there’s also a mailing list you can sign up for, and a Facebook page. So, again, to get in the loop because we periodically do webinars and things like that. And I thought that you and I, Ron, met through the webinar that I did for Fran Simon, and I believe that’s recorded. We have a link to it on our website and you can go to it from hers; that’s another great overview. So there’s lots of ways to learn about it and we are more than happy to talk to folks and help them think through what their next steps are, who else in their state might be interested, what else is going on and how to get started.
Yes, those are some really good resources, and the presentation that you did online through the webinar, through Early Childhood Investigations, was also super-informative to get the breakdown on shared services.
This has been a really interesting conversation. I think what really strikes me about the work that you’re doing, Louise, and with shared services is that it really takes into account both the business leadership side and the pedagogical leadership side which, as you mentioned, you need both of those two things to be really high quality. You can’t just have one or the other and, as you said, oftentimes those two things don’t come together. And I like the words that you used right at the start, where you want to be “big where big matters and small where small matters,” which includes having reflective teachers that can work directly with children to have meaningful conversations and be present in the moment while having directors who have that administrative support that they need to run their organization. So it makes so much sense. Thank you so much for coming on the show today, Louise.
Sure. Happy to do it.