CD’s advice for others struggling with enrollment: ‘Be brave!’

Fatima in front of her highly engaged center.

Fatima Shah in front of her highly engaged center.

When Fatima Shah became center director at Russett KinderCare in Laurel, Md. in 2013, the center had just 40 students and was losing money.

In just a year, she had turned it around – doubling the number of children enrolled and growing revenue along the way.

How did she do it? In her own words, honesty, transparency and an open mind.

Fatima began working at Knowledge Beginnings in 2007, when she was still in high school. Her school, Reservoir High School, had a program for students interested in secondary education and child development – a partnership with the local Knowledge Beginnings to train teachers through internships.

While still in high school she worked as a floater, coming in for a few hours after school. She did every job at the center – from washing dishes to working in classrooms.

“It was my favorite job,” she said. “I loved knowing every single aspect of the center. I knew all the children. I knew every family, everything that went on in the center.”

Fatima didn’t realize it at the time, but her position as a floater was training for her future at KinderCare.

Fatima enjoys any opportunity to interact with the children in her center.

Fatima enjoys any opportunity to interact with the children in her center.

In 2009, she took on the role of third key – assisting the director and assistant director with opening and closing the center, and in 2010 she was promoted to assistant director. In 2013 she transferred to the Russett KinderCare as center director. She did all of this while pursuing an associate degree in early childhood education and a bachelor degree in sociology and anthropology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

As soon as she became CD, she knew she faced a significant challenge. Enrollment was down, and families were leaving.

Her first step was rebuilding the team.

“I had to be honest with them – to let them know the truth about what was going on,” she said. “We talked about what we were working toward – and what it would take to get there.”

Next, she focused on the families.

“I had to understand why we had the reputation we did,” she said. “I reached out to families that had withdrawn to understand why. I had to understand the problems before we could figure out how to fix them.”

The main thing she focused on when talking to families was customer service.

“The service values are so great,” she said. “They give teachers more power to make their own decisions. They give them responsibility of their own classrooms.”

One of the service values focuses on the look and feel of the center itself. Is it warm and welcoming?

In Fatima’s case, it wasn’t.

“The building didn’t look inviting,” she said. “There were paintings and drawings on all the windows and doors were closed. It looked like we were hiding something.”

It was an easy fix, and with a little elbow grease and paint, the center now looks much more inviting and open.

The Russett center is already seeing positive results – in addition to increased enrollment, families are staying longer and are happier with the center.

“Seeing these families bring their second, third child back to us is so rewarding,” Fatima said. “Our teachers are proud to show off their classrooms. The children are engaged, and parents are seeing evidence that their child is learning.”

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Fatima reading with some of the older children in her center.

But there’s more work to do. Fatima plans to continue to increase enrollment and add teachers, and has plans in the works to retain the children already enrolled.

“My goal is to make this the best place possible,” she said, “so there’s no option of them going anywhere else.”

Her advice for other CDs struggling to turn around their centers?

“Be brave, and keep doing what you’re doing. Keep looking for a solution. Never be scared. And know that you will face a lot of trial and error before you finally find victory.”

Fatima was recognized for her great work at the Leesburg CD Academy in June. Tiffany Jo Seese from South Park, Pa., and Lorene Griffin from North Billerica, Mass., were also honored at the Leesburg CD Academy. Su Cutler, Rhabi Baker, Jessica Stender were recognized at the Chicago Academy.

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