You're listening to Voices of Your Village, this is episode 227. In this episode I get to hang out with the CEO of Wonderschool, Chris Bennett. Chris and I got to dive into how Wonderschool is changing childcare systems. Ya'll know I am not here for a Band-aid on a bullet hole. I love really taking a million steps back and looking at the whole picture, getting that bird's eye view and saying, how do we create systems change? Change that supports Early Childhood educators, that's best for families and for kids. What does this really look like and how do we afford to do it? What does it look like logistically? Wonderschool is a huge piece of that puzzle in doing this work, and really focusing on the tech aspect of how do we update antiquated systems? I loved getting to hang out with Chris and have had the privilege of being a partner with Wonderschool in a number of different ways. And I'm really excited for having such brilliant minds and incredible voices brainstorming at the table, of what does this really look like to create systems that serve everyone? Alright folks, let's dive in!
Hey there. I'm Alyssa Blask Campbell. I'm a mom with a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education and co-creator of the Collaborative Emotion Processing method. I'm here to walk alongside you through the messy, vulnerable parts of being humans, raising other humans with deep thoughts and actionable tips. Let's dive in together.
Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Voices of Your Village today to hang out with Chris Bennett. Chris is the CEO and founder of Wonder School. And Chris, I have been watching Wonder School grow for a few years now and have had the privilege of collaborating with all your rad folks at Wonder School and have fallen in love with you all. So thank you.
Yeah, of course. That's really kind of you.
Yeah, for sure. You're doing incredible work, and I'm jazzed to get to see it happen. Can you share with us a little bit about your story and why you founded Wonder School?
Yeah. So I'm originally from Miami, Florida. My parents are immigrants from Honduras, and I went to a home based childcare program when I was a kid and had a really awesome experience in the program. It was started by a woman named Yoli, and so I went to the program, and then she eventually grew it to a center based program in a strip mall near my house. And I would just see her growing her business and see how successful she was. And I was really inspired by what she was doing as a small business owner, just as a kid, I was always really into business. I was like, that's really cool. And then I went to Wharton. I was the first my family to go to college. I eventually made it out to the Bay Area, and I kept hearing from my friends that they couldn't find childcare. I thought that was strange. And so I started to do research, and I found that one childcare is really important because a child's brain develops pretty significantly before the age of five. And if they're not able to get access to support from a loving parent or grandparent, childcare is really needed so that they can get that support just like I did. And the other thing I noticed is that a lot of the childcare providers who are already in the market really needed some help with their business practices. So we built a company that helped some childcare providers start their own child care programs out of their homes. And now we support individuals all over the country starting childcare programs.
Yeah, it's incredible because I think one of the things that when you're not in the Early Ed world, one of the things we don't think about on the outside is that it is a business. And I know for myself I have a Master's in Early Ed. I love early childhood education. I love to get nerdy about it all. And most of the humans I'm surrounded by in a classroom that are teachers, that are directors. They're in that same boat where they love the tiny humans, they love the brain development, but they aren't business folks. They don't know how to do sales and marketing or what it looks like to put together a PNL. And I was just saying the other day, I was talking to somebody about Wonder School and I was like, it's like the tech that we really need in Early Ed. It's tech meets Early Ed. And I think it has such a powerful ability to help us increase quality. And I know that's one of the things that is important to you all at Wonder School. Can you chat with me about what quality means for you all and how you feel like you are supporting raising the quality of Early Ed?
Yeah, so we follow a lot of the standards that states use. In every state, there's a system called the Quality Rating and Improvement System that was created by the federal government. And I'm not sure if it's a mandated thing by states, but pretty much every state does it. And so there's home visits that are involved, there's checklists that the providers need to meet, and they get ratings based on how high quality of a program they are. And we support a lot of our childcare providers in going through that system. We also go above and beyond that. So what we do is we make sure all the programs on our platform are licensed, and so we make sure that they in most states, to be licensed, you have to get background checks, you have to get your home inspected, and you're getting checked in on multiple times a year. And then we get reviews from parents so that we can use that data to understand what's going on in the program and support the childcare provider in improving their program. And a lot of the things that we're looking for from a review standpoint are based on what we've determined are things that are really important for a high quality program like the parent teacher interaction, the teacher child interaction, making sure children are going outside daily, making sure children are being fed the appropriate foods, et cetera. So there's actually a lot more we want to do around quality that we're planning to roll out in the future. Just a lot more sort of getting more visibility into the classroom and using a lot of state of the art technology like AI, and even just simple data that childcare providers and childcare teachers and parents can provide to us to make sure that children are getting the right support that they need. One of our core values is children first. And so a lot of what we're building is for children, even though today a lot of who we interact with are parents and providers.
Sure, well, and I think the way that we're able to put children first is when we, as my child right now is in a family child care provider as well. And if she was spending the bulk of her time on the regulations part, on the logistics, on the business, on the management side that you make so streamlined and easy to navigate. But if she didn't have that, if she was flying solo and trying to figure all that out, that takes even just her brain space and burnout. It takes her away from my kid and away from that connection and ability to relate and be present and not burn out. And so I think so much when we're looking at quality, it falls into so many buckets. We say, like, quality is what we do at seed. And I think there are different buckets of quality. And a huge role that I think Wonder School plays here is helping offload so many of those systems that are in our head as early childhood educators into an actual system so that we aren't being pulled out of the classroom to maintain, to do, et cetera, and that they can be more streamlined. When we're looking at the current landscape for Early Ed, can you fill the audience in on kind of where we are now in Early Ed and what you see as the key components for moving forward and having progress?
Yes. So where are we in Early Ed? The research is clear that Early Childhood education is really vital to a child, to a community, to parents. And so there's a pretty strong movement at the federal level, at the state level, to do more of an investment in Early Ed. You're hearing Trump made a huge investment in Early Ed. You're seeing Biden continue to push for Early Ed reform. You see governors left and right running on campaigns to invest in Early Ed and getting elected based on those campaigns. And now a lot of them are working on living up to those campaign promises. And so that's really exciting. There's a lot of investment coming in. Some of the challenges right now that you're seeing in Early Ed are a lot of the systems that are in place at the state level are pretty antiquated, and they pretty much all need to be modernized so that it's easier for childcare providers, parents, childcare providers and parents to use those systems. The other thing is there's a pretty sizable teacher shortage right now that's happening in America, which is everyone's really feeling. And so that's something we're looking into right now to sort of help childcare providers with recruiting teachers. But that's sort of like the big challenge that's in the market today, and that's really slowing down Early Ed's ability to grow more.
Yeah. When you're looking at modernizing a system, I'm thinking of the work you're doing in New Mexico, for example. Can you kind of paint a picture of what does that mean? What does that look like to modernize the system? For folks who don't understand what is the current system. What are you doing to change that?
So we just rolled out a child care finder in New Mexico, and so we make it really easy for parents to find childcare. Now parents can go to the childcare finder in New Mexico, search for childcare message providers, and enroll their children in childcare programs, which is a pretty exciting update for residents in New Mexico. Same thing in Indiana. That's something we offer, but we're also looking at a lot of the other systems that the state offers. And for example, New Mexico does a lot on pen and paper still today. And so just bringing things to the web in New Mexico can be really valuable for everyone involved.
Sure. Love that we have a bunch of programs in our Seed Cert, and I was just chatting with one of our directors, and we're talking even just about her waitlist. And when a parent fills out or a family fills out the waitlist application and how, then she has to go in and write an email. There's nothing automated. There's nothing. And I was like, oh, my goodness, it doesn't have to be this way. So much of her time is going into things that could be automated that then free up her brain space and ability to invest in the kids. And I think that's something that you all are slaying.
Yeah thank you.
Yeah, for sure. When you're saying modernizing, I want folks to understand that right now in Early Ed, so much is manual that doesn't have to be. Or if you're a parent and you're like, hey, I'm trying to find childcare, I'm going to go look up maybe your state has an outdated search place to look that maybe even maybe it exists, maybe it doesn't. And I know here in Vermont, one of the challenges for me when I was looking for childcare was like, how do I filter? How do I know if these places have openings? How do I know the quality rating of these places? And it was just that there's a space where you can look up every childcare that exists in Vermont, but it tells me no additional information, just so that folks who might be new to this understand that's what the current landscape looks like. And when you're saying modernizing, we're really automating it and making things more accessible and feasible for folks to navigate.
Oh, I'm excited to hear when you mentioned AI, I was like, oh, I want to hear more about what that's going to look like. Can you give us a little snapshot? When you're saying we see AI in the quality, what are you curious about creating?
Yeah, I mean, just think about all of the cool things that are happening with AI right now. It's accelerating our ability to synthesize information and come up with decisions that are pretty spot on, decisions that humans would come up with a good amount of thought and work like AI can do in milliseconds. It's incredible. Just imagine a world where your child and I don't know if people like this world. I don't know I'm going to risk some things and say some things that I don't know how people would respond to. But imagine if your child is being observed via AI and is able to with a camera all day, is able to pick up on any sort of areas for opportunities for your child to invest more of their time into so the teacher can focus more of their time on yeah. Areas where your child is really interested in that you as a parent, may not be able to glean. Parents want cameras in classrooms so that they can check in on their child. But what if AI were giving you insights on your child? It's actually pretty straightforward. I don't know how to build it, but my guess is if you piece together a lot of the innovations that exist today, we could get there pretty quickly. And we work with tens of thousands of childcare programs, so we have the opportunity to roll things like that out. You were asking about quality. Like, imagine if you could just use AI. You don't even have to send in someone to go and look at the program. Just use AI and tell the provider, hey, these are things that you can do to make your program more quality. Yeah, I think that's going to be really interesting.
Have you been scrolling the Internet? And there's all these tools for calming your child and how to regulate and whatever, and you try them and your child just gets amped up or that doesn't work. Or you find yourself in these cycles where it's like epic meltdown. Try to come back from it and you just feel like you're putting out fires all day long. If this is you, you aren't alone. And we collaborated with an Occupational Therapist to create our Sensory Profile quiz. This is going to help you learn about what helps your child regulate what's happening in their unique nervous system. We are all different and figuring out what you're sensitive to or what helps you regulate is the key for actually doing this work, for getting to a regulated state, for having tools, for calming down, for having tools for regulation. Head on over to www.seedquiz.com to take the quiz for free. You can take it as many times as you like for as many humans as you'd like, and we will deliver results right to your inbox to get you kick started on this journey. Seedquiz.com.
I like it. And what I like is that we can I think it can troubleshoot the bias component that we know that we have human bias. We're all bringing up bias. And so when we're bringing in the AI part of this, if somebody's coming to do an eval I mean, you look at our small state of Vermont, everyone knows everyone. Somebody shows up at your program to do an evaluation, there's no way they're walking in your door without some bias, even if they're like, I love this program. This is one of my favorite programs that lives inside of them when they walk in to do this workshop right, or to do this evaluation. And so AI takes the bias out of it. I dig that.
Yeah, it could actually be cool to do it side by side, too. Still keep doing the person, but then use AI to spark conversation and to spark areas of additional focus.
Sure. So Wonder School right now is primarily in family childcare programs, and can you break down, first of all, why family child care versus childcare centers? And if you know some of the data around the percentage of family child care versus center based care, it might be helpful for people to hear, yeah.
So we need more childcare in America. And the easiest way to start a childcare program is a home based childcare program because people already live in homes, teachers already live in homes, and they can get up and running pretty quickly. Also, the failure rate of starting a center is pretty high. You have to retrofit a space. You have to invest a lot of money in a down payment or a security deposit in your lease. You have to make sure your program is full. You need to make sure that you can recruit enough teachers to keep it up and running. You have to buy all these materials. So operating a center is like the big league, in my opinion, and we need more of those. But I kind of think of family child care as sort of like the step before the big leagues. So a lot of folks can start these programs, operate them out of their home, learn the ropes, learn what it's like to recruit a teacher, learn what it's like to recruit a family, learn what it's like to actually be a childcare provider. And then if that's going really well, what typically happens is you develop a pretty sizable waitlist, and then you can use that waitlist to fund the creation of a center. And you can get really creative about it. I bet you if you're thoughtful about it, you can get the parents on that waitlist to help you pay for a lot of the startup costs associated with that center. Because there's so much demand, parents are willing to invest in a childcare slot.
I'm just going to call BS on the fact that parents would have to because our systems and our states should be investing in that. But you're right, parents would because we need to right now. And also states, this is a CTA for you, federal government, this is a CTA for you to invest in that.
Frankly, states actually are there's a lot of startup grants that are out there right now that a lot of childcare providers aren't really even aware of that's one of the big benefits, the other big benefit of a home based program is that the student to teacher ratio is a lot lower in a home based program. And there's tons of data that just shows that smaller classrooms leads to more personalized learning, which leads to better mastery of subjects. Any parent knows that a child getting more attention is better than a child getting less attention.
I chose Family Childcare for my child for two reasons. One, the childcare provider is incredible. I've had the privilege of working with her for years. She wrote a book on Early Ed Teacher Burnout. She's a dream. But outside of her, I chose it because he is a sensory sensitive human who thrives more, he's more successful in small groups than he is in large. And I think it's a huge advantage to family child care. I think. Another thing that I think about when I think about family, childcare, are how many of us in Early Ed who have left the field as teachers, who are at home raising our kids, who would potentially, even if it's short term, are like, I want to be at home with my kids, and I could bring in this income. I'm going to be home with them. I could have a family Child care. That's what my mom did with us when we were younger. I'm one of five, and we were in a low income community. She stayed home with us and hers. It was unregulated small town, like village mentality, if you will, but she ran an unregulated family childcare. And I'm like, what would it look like to have that but regulated more prevalent to say, like, oh, you're in a small town, you're in a rural state, man, Vermont. I think it's a very untapped potential for us here in Vermont to have more family child care programs that are going to help us meet these needs, especially because we're such a rural state. Center based care doesn't make a whole lot of sense for most of our state.
Yeah. Makes a lot of sense.
And I think from the teacher side, yeah, it's like an option. I have so many friends who have left the field teaching because they had kids and they're getting paid almost nothing. And now it doesn't make sense to pay for your kid to go to school so you can pay to go to work. And they're home and their background is Early Ed and they could open up a spot. And you take at Wonder School, the business part off their plate. Right. Like streamlining. That is so huge. I think you all are a really key component to having childcare more available and accessible.
We talked about AI, what would be in your dream landscape. There's funding for it all. What change do you believe would be the raddest if you were like, funding is not a barrier for Wonder School.
We work with a lot of states that pay us to create childcare programs, and we would want more states to pay us to create more childcare programs.
Pretty simple. Because there's a shortage of childcare in America, and we need more home based childcare programs, and we need more entrepreneurs who are willing to grow from a home based program to a center based program. To me, it's just so simple. It's such a simple idea. More home based childcare program is better for everybody, period. So just need more of that.
Okay, let me rephrase my question. Outside of what Wonder School is already currently doing, what would your dream look like?
Yeah. For Wonder School's role in the system.
For Wonder School's role in the system, what else would we be doing.
Outside of what you're currently doing and outside of AI, which we've touched on.
I would love to spend more time with parents. Parents are so critical to a child's development, and so I would love to spend more time thinking about what's going on inside of in the home and helping parents become better childcare providers themselves, actually. And that's something I think could be pretty monumental and cause a lot of positive change.
Yeah. Sick. Love that. Love that. When we created the Cert, we have teacher element to it, PD, ongoing support, et cetera. All of our families in every program get access to our tiny humans big emotions parenting course. For that exact reason, I was like, we can't yeah, we can't just support teachers. We've got to support families as well with this work. Same. I agree. Love it. Great answer. Yeah. When you were growing Wonder School, did it always start out I feel like you came into my sphere. I really feel like I learned about you all just before COVID maybe. And then there's a shift in COVID. Yeah, but you've been around longer than that. Was it always family childcare in the same sort of model?
Yeah, it was always family childcare, and it was the same model. And we started in 2016. We still are pretty big in California. That's where a lot of our focus is.
Sure, that makes sense. Your tech background.
Yes, I live right in the middle of San Francisco.
Around a lot of tech people. Yes, for sure.
Sure. Sweet. Well, Chris, I'm so stoked about the work you all are doing. Yeah, it's necessary. I think there are so many of us in Early Ed trying to solve the problem. And I was chatting with someone on your team, Mia, a few months ago, and I was like, the thing is, if we try to solve the same problem with the same solutions over and over, we're going to continue to get the same results. And when I sit on statewide committees here in Vermont, and everybody, people from both public and private sectors are on these committees, and everyone's talking about how to solve these problems. And a lot of the times. The conversation is just more of what we're already doing, man. We can't there has to be innovative thought and practice and approach, and you all are bringing that to the table and I'm super grateful for it.
That's kind of thank you for sharing that. Thank you.
Yeah, for sure. Is there anything you'd like to leave folks with today? Where can they find you? Learn more about Wonder School if they're interested in opening their own family, child care, connecting you in their state?
Yeah, if you want to start a childcare program, email us at [email protected]. If you want to contact me, I'm on LinkedIn, so you can just find me on LinkedIn. Chris Bennett. And if you want to learn more about Wonder School, go to wonderschool.com.
Sick. Thank you, Chris. And for our Wonder School folks, if you're a part of the community, I did PD in December, and we have more of that to come for Wonder School providers in the social emotional realm of things. So, cheers. Cheers to being in collaboration and moving this needle forward Chris.
Thank you so much, Alyssa, thanks for having me on.
Thanks for tuning in to Voices of Your Village. Check out the transcript at voicesofyourvillage.com. Did you know that we have a special community over on Instagram hanging out every day with more free content? Come join us at seed.and.sew. Take a screenshot of you tuning in, share it on the gram and tag seed.and.sew to let me know your key takeaway. If you're digging this podcast, make sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. We love collaborating with you to raise emotionally intelligent humans.