A new shared services alliance is transforming early education, helping small providers act like economies of scale.
A small early childhood center has a problem with their plumbing, but it’s taken nearly a week to get it fixed – not because of the expense, although that is a burden, but because after the program director spent an entire day calling different maintenance companies, a week was the earliest someone could get there to fix it at an affordable price.
There are many challenges facing the early childhood field, but finding a plumber should not be one of them.
It’s just one example of how smaller providers in this under-funded and highly-regulated field are constantly trying to balance quality standards with limited resources. And the more time program directors spend on administrative and operational tasks, the less they can focus on their teachers, curriculum, and children.
But what if these smaller centers could work together to consolidate purchasing power, access better vendors, and share their knowledge and experiences?
Eight years ago, a group of ten early childhood program directors in the New Hampshire Seacoast region came together to discuss best practices. What they eventually ended up starting, with support from United Way of the Greater Seacoast, was the State Early Learning Alliance of NH (SELA), a model of “shared services” that quickly grew statewide. It is now made up of over 100 programs in NH and the model catching on in Massachusetts, with plans to launch the Cambridge/Somerville Shared Service Alliance this fall.
“United Way of the Greater Seacoast’s funding was critical to making this happen, right from the beginning,” said Cellissa Hoyt, director of SELA. “They helped us create a plan and get to work, investing in this vision and helping us strategically grow and shape the alliance.”
SHARING IS CARING
As a program director at Bigelow Cooperative Childcare Center in Somerville for 6 years, Melinda Weber understood the potential benefits of this model all too well. When she heard about SELA, she knew right away that she wanted to be involved with bringing the model to Massachusetts and is now managing the new Cambridge/Somerville Shared Service Alliance. “I became convinced this was the way to effect innovative change,” she said.
Now, together with United Way of Massachusetts Bay, Melinda and Cellissa have been working to expand the shared services model and maximize its potential.
There are three crucial elements to the shared services model:
- A web platform for central resources, where information for programs is consolidated and customized to their needs. Members can also access opportunities to purchase things at scale, like school supplies, books and tools.
- A partnership with Great North Property Management Company provides significant savings on things like maintenance, insurance, waste disposal, heating, and even cell phone plans by tapping into their massive network and purchasing power (so a quality, affordable plumber is not more than a day away).
- Communities of practice, where members frequently get together to build relationships and share knowledge and best practices.
Each element of shared services directly impacts the many factors that go into providing a “quality” early learning experience; from the teachers and programs offered to basic infrastructure.
“This is going to change the way we do business,” said Melinda Weber. “Being a program director at a small agency can feel isolating, but working together and having these resources in place makes you feel like you have so much more support behind you to improve quality for kids and staff.”
In New Hampshire, the participants experienced a significant impact right away – from saving time and gaining access to solutions, to the very real financial savings that allowed more to be invested in staff and services.
When Cellissa was the Program Director at a small provider called Growing Places, they saved about $10,000 per year through SELA. Large providers in the alliance save up to $50,000 and report that are using those funds to create playgrounds, facility improvements, and increase professional development and staffing.
“In this environment when margins are razor thin and we want to keep good staff, this savings allows us to do that while improving quality,” Cellissa said. “There were specific things I had been trying to do for several years and we were finally able to do it thanks to this cost savings.”
Because in the end, it is about more than just saving money. It’s about focusing educators on the things that will make a difference to preschoolers in our region – and letting someone else worry about the logistics.