This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are excited to welcome Gigi Schweikert, CEO of Lightbridge Academy Gigi shares her tips on how to provide high-quality childcare at your center that will entice families to stay with you long term!
Lightbridge Academy provides high-quality childcare and education for young children and their families. Their core values set them apart: happiness, integrity, and excellence. They make every decision by those core values and offer many stand-out features such as open-door virtual policies for parents through webcams and facial recognition software to get into the center.
Before the technology of cameras existed, parents could come into a center at any time! Therefore, Lightbridge Academy operates with that same virtual open-door policy. The cameras bring the opportunity for everyone to see what the children are doing every day. This transparency makes the quality of care even stronger.
Gigi believes in making every childhood education a home away from home. Children spend such a significant amount of time in childcare. She tries to create an environment where children feel comfortable doing things that make them full-body learners. She also does not use any bright colors because it is more calming and similar to a home environment.
Early childhood education is all about trust. Parents need to trust a center enough to leave their child there. When a parent senses a red flag, they should bring it up to the educator or Director and see it dealt with immediately. At the end of the day, childcare has to feel right for each parent and child. Everyone deserves access to high-quality childcare and education. Funding from subsidies is one thing that can help providers and families meet this goal. Listen to the full episode below to learn more!
Gigi’s recommended resources:
Podcast Episode Transcript
The greatest sense is that feeling that you get because early-childhood education is about trust. “Do I trust you, or another, center enough to leave my child with you?
Gigi, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Ron, thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited about our conversation1
We’re very excited to have with us today Gigi Schweikert. She’s the CEO of Lightbridge Academy in the US. And we’re going to talk to her today a little bit about what it’s like running childcare programs, dealing with enrollment and all the fun challenges that we all have as early-childhood educators, directors of childcare programs. But let’s start off learning a little bit about you, Gigi. Can you tell our audience a little bit about your background and how you got into early-childhood education?
Absolutely. And so, as I’m going back in my background and telling you a little bit about it, thinking of myself as a CEO is something that I never, ever envisioned. So, when I was young, I was always enthralled with teaching young children. And my parents had kind of guided me to do other things. And so I kind of settled on this being a pediadontist, a dentist for young children.
And I took a gap year in college before entering dental school and went out to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and worked at Kiddy Academy, which was a childcare center on the mountain for young children. So, we were caring for people’s children and teaching young children how to ski. And so I worked in the infant room and I also worked with three-year-olds, teaching them how to ski, which was loads of fun.
From there, after the ski season, I had the opportunity to work at an intergenerational program that had a combination of seniors and young children working together, which was phenomenal. And so that kind of cast my career there with early-childhood education. And from there went to the United Nations in New York City, where I started as a toddler teacher, worked on my graduate work at Bank Street College of Education.
As when I left the United Nations to move to the suburbs, I was the director and then started doing onsite site care center for Fortune 100 companies. From there, had a little childcare center of my own for children who are now grown, ranging in age from 20 to 26. So, there were some crazy years there with them so close together. During that time, I started doing some consulting and writing and then found myself, as they all started to enter college, back in the work world and took a job about seven years ago with Lightbridge Academy. And here I am today.
So, it has been an absolutely phenomenal career and I am grateful and blessed and honored to have worked in every single position I have, from toddler teacher to regional manager, to vice president to development, to the person who fishes Legos out of the toilet. And I just really love every facet of it. It’s what I do and it’s a double negative: I can’t not do it. I just love the field and everything about it.
Yeah, I’ve never heard that one before, “I can’t not do it”. Well, I think probably a lot of folks in your shoes would say the same thing. And wow, that’s a really varied experience. You’ve seen it all. And so now you’re the CEO of Lightbridge Academy. Tell us a little bit about Lightbridge.
Lightbridge is a phenomenal company. It provides, like many early-childhood programs out there, incredible quality and education and care for young children and their families. What really differentiates Lightbridge Academy for me personally – why I took the job I’ll speak to and then why I think there’s a huge differentiation beyond that for parents, as well – is our core values and our circle of care.
So, our core values are made up of happiness and integrity and excellence. And I live every day and my experience at Lightbridge Academy and the reason that I took the position was that we make every decision, whether that’s how we’re moving forward with curriculum or what the new prototype looks like, or the depth of the dumpster’s pad concrete by those core values. So, it’s a company of great integrity. And I know that I will never be called to minimize what I feel is right for children and their families, no matter what. And so that is an amazing way to work and live. And I am just so proud to be in a company that does that and feels that way.
And I think the second differentiator that’s more on the consumer parent side is technology. We’re the only company that I’m aware of where we actually are able to take technology to bring people together. So, all of our centers are required to have Parent View, which is powered by Watch Me Grow. And we have cameras in every single classroom, which parents have access to. So, our virtual door policy is really a virtual door policy. I mean, you are welcome to come in and see what we’re doing at any time, and that was especially helpful with Covid .
We have a great Lightbridge Journey app, which is an e-communication tool that keeps parents connected to what’s happening in the classroom on a daily basis. And with the center, we have facial recognition to get into the center. We have an HVAC [Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning] component that was introduced during Covid that reduces the impurities up to 99.9% in the air. I could go on and on and on. So, to answer your question, the core values and circle of care, caring for everyone around us and including the community and the technology that brings us together.
Very cool. And you mentioned about how you always are considering your core values when you’re making decisions. And that was a really important reason why you took the role, which makes a ton of sense. How does that work more practically? Because I think it’s one of those things where a lot of organizations and senior executives would like to be able to do in practice. But sometimes there’s challenges, right? You have to make certain financial goals or economic targets or whatever those things are.
So, that’s a really good question, Ron, is I think core values can often hang on the wall and people can say things, like I just said, that we live by those. But really drilling down to that practical piece is essential. I’ll give you an example of a conversation I just had before I’m having the privilege of speaking with you, and that was talking about with that Lightbridge Journey app and the hardware that we’re going to use for that parent communication and whether we’re going to use an Android or whether we’re going to use an iPad.
We have been looking at Androids in hopes that we could reduce that hardware cost. We have found that even using some of the best Androids, that the connectivity, the quality, the functionality, the friendly use to the teacher is not as good as moving forward with the iPad. And so despite the cost is going to be more, we feel that, given the core value of excellence, given the core value of happiness, wanting our teachers to be happy, that that is an increase that is very important to us and one that affects our quality. So, that’s a perfect example of how we’re able to do that and make those decisions based on that very core.
Very core. And certainly teacher happiness is a very important part of the equation and translates into children’s experience at Lightbridge. And on that, one of the questions I wanted to ask you, because I know there’s some programs that use the virtual drop-in, I think you called that, in terms of a camera where parents can see what’s happening in the classroom. What’s your educators’ and teachers’ reaction to that? Because one view is sort of like it might be sort of a little bit too intrusive. But I’m curious to know what they how they feel about it.
Yeah, so that’s a really good question and a question that I get asked very often about the cameras. So, I take myself back to the days before cameras and technology and computers, so I’ll date myself. And we always talked about parents were welcome at any time, that they could come in any time they wanted. And so we should be able to operate our centers knowing that whatever we do, we would be proud to be doing that in front of anyone, whether that was the parent or a regulation organization or an accreditation organization.
And so I think that the cameras bring for us the opportunity for everyone to see what we’re doing every day. So, parents enroll and teachers accept positions knowing that we have this virtual atmosphere that’s available to parents on every device. I think that we forget that it’s there. Parents don’t – they often look at it and monitor it, especially with their first child.
And what it does is it puts more eyes and ears on what’s happening in the classroom. Teachers are comfortable with it. And parents have the opportunity to be able to say, “Hey, I saw this,” or, “I think you could improve in this way”. And through that, transparency and honesty and understanding that in any service-related organization that uses humans, we will make some mistakes. And so having all those parents and everyone keeping track of the community makes the quality of care and education even better. So, we want to be transparent. And if we see something that can be improved, we want to know about it so that we can improve it.
Yeah, I like that perspective of sort of the virtual replaces the in-person drop in, which I think most childcare programs would say parents are welcome to come by any time and say hi. So, that’s kind of a good way to think about it. And speaking of that classroom setting, what does Lightbridge do to create an environment that is sort of setting the best opportunity for children in their learning and development?
That’s also such a great question. And I’ll start with my mentor was Jim Greenman, who I worked with when I was very young. And he wrote many books on spaces for children. And the greatest thing that he taught me that I have been able to carry with me throughout my career, places that I’ve led or talks that I’ve given or books that I’ve written, is to make early-childhood education a home away from home.
And the reason is because that the children who are in care for working parents are going to spend a significant amount of time there. So, one of those things that we try to do is create “yes” environment where children can feel comfortable to move and touch and feel and climb and do all those things that children intrinsically do as full-body learners.
The second thing is not using bright colors in any of our wall colorings, coverings, shelving, tables because it’s more calming and because it’s more like a home. And also recognizing that that vibrant color is going to come from children’s clothing and the toys that we have. So, we like to have artificial lighting. We obviously have to have that natural lighting. We like to have things that smell good and the smell of children’s food and the paint and the things around them. And even the smell of dryer cleaning some cot sheets and those types of things that really make it multidimensional and really very comfortable.
You don’t live your life in your home with fluorescent lights. You don’t live in your home with primary colors on all the walls. And so it’s important for children to be in a space that they feel is comfortable and also one that they feel that they can engage and they can initiate what children do innately, which is wonder about their environment and explore their environment and be curious about their environment.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And so we’ve talked a little bit about the classroom environment; we’ve talked a little bit about technology; we’ve talked a little bit about culture, in terms of the core values. I’m assuming these are all things that parents should be looking for when choosing childcare. For our parents that might be listening here today, what are other things that you think parents should be looking for when they’re looking at options for childcare and early learning programs?
That is so hard for parents to make that decision. I know that with all of the education that I’ve had and experience in early-childhood education, when I went to choose care for my own children, it was really difficult. And so I think as parents, we want to see that clean facility. We want to see that educational component. We want to know that it’s safe. We want to know that our children will be cared for and loved and educated.
But as a mom – and I’m going to kind of wear my CEO hat right now, and my mommy hat – the most important thing beyond being able to check all those things off, making sure that there are no regulations that a center may not have passed, or that perhaps it’s an accredited program or that you get a referral from another parent who’s had direct experience, is the greatest sense, for me, is the feeling that you get.
Because early-childhood education is about trust. “Do I trust you – Lightbridge Academy, or another center – enough to leave my child with you?” So, as a mom, when I enter any center –and especially looking at the Lightbridge centers – I think to myself, even with my grown children now, “Would I leave my child with you?” So, parents should make sure they have a great list to check off the safety components, the educational components, the retention of teachers, all of those things that I think we talk about a lot.
But at the very end, does it feel right? Does this feel like a place where you want to make this a part of your family? Because those care givers and those administrators become a part of your family of you spend four years there. And if you have a second child, you may spend seven years there. And so I think it’s all of those things and that feeling of, “This is the right place for my child.”
On the reverse side, Ron, I would also say that when parents see or feel red flags, immediately go to the teacher or director about things that concern you. And if a parent doesn’t feel comfortable, it doesn’t matter if everyone in your community goes to that center. It has to be right for you as a parent. And you have to be able to make that individual choice on your own.
Yeah, that’s an interesting point of view because it sounds so simple, but it’s actually not that obvious because sometimes you talk about, yeah, what do you look for in a childcare program? And there’s a list of all these things. But at the end of the day, you’re right. You go and you visit and you talk to people and you get a tour. And then it’s like, does it feel right or not?
And I think that’s the ultimate piece. “Does this feel okay to me?” And I think that we intrinsically have that. And I wouldn’t ever underestimate that feeling. And then obviously, as I said before, speaking to parents, other parents who’ve gone through the program, parents who were satisfied with the program who weren’t satisfied with the program and get a perspective on it so that you can make a choice. And as I said before, if you feel like it’s not the right choice for you, then seek other care.
Yeah, talking to other parents is definitely quite important, as well, I think, to hear about their experiences. Because the moment that you’re there taking a tour, looking around is just one moment in time, versus they’ve had maybe a longer experience. So, that makes a ton of sense. Just switching gears here quickly before we wrap up this conversation. There’s a lot of subsidy available out there for parents using childcare, and I think increasingly so, especially here in Canada. I’m curious to hear your thoughts and opinions on childcare subsidy and the impact that that has on the market.
I think, and as I started with my history, that I am all about that child and that family and everyone having access to quality care and education. There are many studies that indicate the benefits for young children who are in quality early-childhood education. And I think funding from the federal government or on the state level or in any way that we can so that it helps providers, it helps families, is important.
I also think that it’s equally important to make sure that as those agencies decide how they will use that money, that they take into consideration people like Lightbridge Academy and our competitors. We have been doing what we’ve been doing and caring for our communities for 25 years.
And so if we can make streams of revenue available, that funding and a mixed delivery system where it’s provided to private providers as well as public providers, that that will be what’s best for children and their families, communities, the economy and just all-around everyone I started with and will end with the circle of care, which is the child, the parent, the staff, the owners and the communities.
So, the more money that we can have to support early-childhood education is important and making sure that it goes to the underserved first. And secondly, making sure that people have access in a mixed delivery system to programs that have experience and have a proven record of providing quality care for many years.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, especially as someone who operates a social enterprise with HiMama, where we use revenue and profits to invest and drive our social impact and the things we’re passionate about, that makes a lot of sense. And it sounds like Lightbridge similarly has core values that folks really believe in and implement day-to-day. And so being able to provide that in that mixed delivery model makes a lot of sense to support your communities.
Gigi, before we wrap up, just a couple more questions: Firstly, for our listeners’ own personal learning and development, do you have any recommendations for content they might want to check out?
Yeah. So, kind of going how do you take the core values and how do you practically exercise that every day when making decisions, is it makes me think about Simon Sinek and his book The [Infinite] Game. And I think that’s a great book to understand the choices that you make, whether that’s a quick fix, the short term or long term. And I think that our decisions are so important. And his book, The [Infinite] Game, is especially salient to me.
Yeah, I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek, so I think that’s an excellent recommendation. And last but not least, for our audience who’s interested in getting in touch with you or learning more about Lightbridge Academy, where can they go to get more information?
So, you can go to www.LightbridgeAcademy.com. And you can also go to my website, which is www.GigiSchweikert.com. But you can get me through Lightbridge Academy and that’s probably easier to remember than “Gigi Schweiker”. And there are just so many good programs and systems out there.
And it is my great passion in talking about Simon Sinek, and my “why” right now and this season of my life, to share as much information as I have about quality care and education with as many people as possible, so that every child and family has access to what we now know through research, and felt anecdotally over the years, that play-directed, friendly environments are the best place for young children.
Totally. And you have a franchising model, as well, is that right?
Cool, and is there, for our more entrepreneurial listeners out there, any franchising opportunities available right now?
We do. We have many franchise opportunities available, as well as multi-unit opportunities. So, we’re looking for people who match our core values is the very first thing that we’re looking for. So, if you’re happy and you love children and you want to make a difference in your community and also make a difference with your family and possibly provide a legacy for your family, then it’s an excellent opportunity.
Franchising, I think people forget, if you drive down any street in the United States, that the majority of those small businesses are through franchising concepts. And it’s a great way to help the economy and for people to personally fulfill their passion.
Yeah, absolutely, wonderful. Well, Gigi, thank you so much for joining us today on the Preschool Podcast. It was really lovely to learn more about you and your history and Lightbridge Academy here today!
Ron, thank you so much!