Leslie Spina started Kinder Academy in 1994 with a simple idea: What if a childcare center had daycare hours with preschool programming?
Back then, it was a revolutionary idea, she says. Most parents had to choose between high-quality, half-day preschools or all-day, lower-quality daycares.
Kinder started with a program in partnership with Stephen Decatur School in Parkwood, and, now, Spina’s network has five locations in Northeast Philly that employ 100 people and serve more than 500 families.
The company is embarking on an ambitious new project — turning Trinity Church Oxford’s Parish House in Lawndale into its newest center by this spring.
Kinder’s goal is to provide a high-quality, hands-on educational experience for babies and toddlers at an affordable cost so they’re ready for kindergarten. Many kids attend free or at a reduced fee, Spina said.
“Our families are in a socioeconomic status that often precludes them from having high-quality opportunities,” Spina said during an interview at Kinder’s headquarters, the former Phil’s Shoes, 7332 Elgin Ave.
Kinder threw a 25th anniversary party for its teachers Friday at AMC Woodhaven 10 theater in Bensalem. It featured the airing of “No Small Matter,” a documentary about early childhood education, and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a new movie about Fred Rogers.
There was also a flood of citations from the offices of government officials, including U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, Mayor Jim Kenney, state Sen. John Sabatina and state Rep. Jared Solomon.
“(Spina) immediately struck me as somebody who cared,” Sabatina said. “Somebody who cared about the children. Somebody who cared about the neighborhood.”
Spina stumbled into the early childhood education industry after leaving General Electric. She founded Kinder several years before there was an emphasis on pre-kindergarten.
“Giving children opportunities to learn in preschool is not new, but there’s a lot of daycare that didn’t have that focus for many years,” Spina said.
She credited former President Barack Obama with bringing attention to the issue.
Kenney has also made early childhood education a priority, most controversially through the soda tax. Spina, an advocate for increased funding for the industry, said she traveled to City Hall to fight for the tax.
“We needed a sea change in the culture of this industry to provide enough slots, so this is part of the impetus for that, and there are more high-quality programs than there ever have been,” she said.
Spina, who’s in a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania for educational leadership, speaks passionately about Kinder’s methods. The centers stress structured play, not worksheets, and encourage toddlers to experiment with mud, sand and other messy materials.
“From age 3 to 5, they are not the same person,” she said. “They have really grown so much. It’s very cool.”
Solomon said there are 67 daycares in his district but only three that are highly rated by a statewide ranking system, including Kinder. He is spearheading the effort to revitalize the Trinity Oxford property and hopes the new center will add a spark to Rising Sun Avenue.
“It sets the tone for the business corridor,” he said at the anniversary party. “Hopefully, a ton of businesses are going to follow suit.”
Kinder’s center at the Parish House, 6901 Rising Sun Ave., which was once slated to be demolished for a gas station, is scheduled to open with 150 preschool slots.
Spina, who lives in Holland, Bucks County, said she could make a lot more money opening locations in the suburbs. Instead, Kinder is moving south and is examining ways to move into areas with few highly rated childcare options.
“We fill a need a lot of people aren’t interested in filling,” she said. ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.