Growing up in New Orleans and working in the child care center her grandmother founded and her mother eventually took over, Paula Polito swore she’d never work in a daycare.
She wanted to do something else with her life … she thought.
She earned a degree in marketing and went on to get her master’s of business administration, she said in a recent episode of The Child Care Business Podcast hosted by Procare Solutions called “Thriving Through Multiple ‘Once-in-a-Lifetime’ Crises.”
She hesitated in 1999 when her mother asked if she wanted to purchase the center.
But she realized that her background and family history in child care, plus her business education, made it a good fit.
And that’s how she became the third generation to own the Beary Cherry Tree daycare.
“I’m very competitive and I love a challenge,” she said.
In a recent podcast with Procare Solutions, she described the path that led her to where she is today. From navigating the loss of her house and severe building damage during Hurricane Katrina to dealing with a pandemic, Paula has seen it all. (And along the way, she spent six years as a cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints and appeared on the TV show “Fear Factor.”)
Her resilient spirit, business acumen and focus on culture have helped her weather the storm (pun intended).
“We do not work in an industry that’s for the faint of heart. Any director-owner is typically wearing 20 different hats on one given day,” Paula said.
Learning to Lead
She remembers driving up to the center after leaving the bank to finalize the purchase. It had three buildings spanning about 12,000 square feet. It had grown from 1,000 square feet from its beginnings in 1976.
“And I said, I want this to be the very best for every kid I serve,” she said.
She immediately decided to identify what best practices for operating it and to understand what she was working with.
Her mission included making classes smaller and earning accreditations that weren’t even required by Louisiana law. She has focused heavily on creating a strong culture at her child care center.
Paula has advocated for child care at many levels of government and now holds a number of certifications in addition to serving as the advisory board chair to the Louisiana Department of Education.
Beary Cherry focuses heavily on the health of the kids who attend there and is now one of the largest centers in the area.
Getting Through Tough Times
Everything she did should have been enough to ensure a successful business.
But then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She lost her house and her business sustained extensive damage.
She overcame those struggles and rebounded.
Years later came the coronavirus, which she compares to that storm. But unlike Katrina, there’s no end in sight to the pandemic, Paula said.
“I always said if another Katrina came, I would not be able to do it. And well, here I am. We are a year plus in COVID, but you know, a lot of deep breaths. As an owner, it’s a lot of debriefing, a lot of just trying to get perspective, a lot of walks outside, yoga,” she said. “People are looking at me to lead and I can’t go in there frazzled and upset and anxious, even though that might be how I’m feeling. I’ve got to be calm for the people that I lead.”
When the center was closed for a couple months, she couldn’t pay her teachers.
Throughout the pandemic, she has tried to help staff and parents who are scared and anxious. She offered to let teachers work half days when the center reopened.
“We really just tried to get as creative as we could keeping our teachers’ mental health at the forefront of all decisions that we made,” she said.
And she always tried to be as clear as possible with the limited information we had.
When she hosted a team meeting in June of 2020, just before reopening the center, she outlined everything she knew.
“We know this is scary,” she said she told her team. “We’ve never done this before, but we want to work with you and partner with you to make this a successful transition from staying at home to opening our center back up in the safest way possible.”
And for the most part, she kept her core team.
“We’re going to get through this. We did it during Katrina,” Paula said of the pandemic.
She described daycare operators as people who “absolutely dig their heels in and we’re going to get it done and we’re going to do it better than we did before.”
She said the culture of respect at her center is vital and why she retains so many of her teachers, including one who has been with her for 29 years.
“I think I am really good at listening as a leader in my organization. I listen a lot. I find that that’s where you learn the most, and really identify what the teacher’s needs are,” she said.
Benefits she offers her teachers include free childcare, health insurance, 401k contributions, as well as holiday and vacation pay.
Her teachers have smaller class sizes. Louisiana law allows a 1:11 ratio for 2-year-olds. But at her center, that ratio is just 1:5.
“If I have to go eight, nine hours a day with eleven 2-year-olds, I’m going to run far after I walk out of that building. So I think it’s looking at the teacher as a whole and trying to support each one,” she said.
And when she does interviews, she is clear about her expectations and what she can offer them as employees.
“They know they’re walking into a place that does great things for children,” she said of the interview process.
She makes it clear that she will support them in their work and growth, something she continues to do as well.
She’s working on getting her doctorate in urban studies and affairs from the University of New Orleans. She hopes that degree will position herself to keep working for change and progress in the child care industry.
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The Child Care Business Podcast is all about giving child care, preschool, daycare, after school and other early education professionals a fun way to learn about strategies and inspiration to thrive.
In each episode, you’ll hear from a variety of child care leaders including educators, owners and industry experts. They’ll offer their tips on ways to innovate and meet the needs of the children you serve, as well as advice on managing operations and sharing uplifting stories of transformation and triumph.
If you want to connect with Paula, you can visit her website https://www.bearycherrytree.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have an idea for a podcast or want to be a guest on The Child Care Business Podcast? Email us at email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you!