Spotted Zebra Learning Center Executive Director Sheri Townsend.
For Albany-native Sheri Townsend, autism was never an integral part of her life. However, that all changed when the nation’s fastest growing developmental disability hit home. After Sheri and husband Scott welcomed their twins Alex and Mackenzie in 2002; they learned at 18-months Alex was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
The Townsends quickly recognized that autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that begins typically in early childhood and affects communication skills, social development, and behavior. They also learned from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum. For the next year, the Townsend family was busy juggling Alex’s early-intervention services from the county and Sheri’s full-time role as the commissioner of Youth and Work Services for the city of Albany.
When Alex was ready for a more structured preschool program, Sheri and her husband looked for one with the flexibility to keep the twins together and a schedule to match their working family’s hours. Unfortunately, most programs were only five hours long, without before and after-care capacity, and none were designed to handle both regular and special needs children in an inclusive setting. Frustrated to be unable to find what was best for her children, Sheri realized the solution was in her hands.
“Certainly with twins I wanted both of my children to be together at the same location. I couldn’t imagine leaving every day at 12:30 to take him to a babysitter. Part of my work was creating new programs for youth, and I asked my husband if we could create our own program. If Alex was in an environment more than a few hours a day, would he overcome his challenges that much faster? So we created a preschool to serve typically developing children and those with special needs,” explains Sheri.
In September 2005 Sheri started Spotted Zebra Learning Center, a small preschool with two classrooms and a teaching staff of 10 on Kross Keys Drive in Albany, NY. Alex and Mackenzie were among her center’s first students, creating the balanced ratio that Sheri couldn’t find elsewhere. Scott took time away from his architecture company to help design the preschool and maximize the leased 4,200-square foot space. Just six months later, Sheri made the decision to leave her job and bring her management skills to Spotted Zebra on a full-time basis.
“The preschool was really starting to grow and my heart was here. I felt I had so much to give here,” recounts Sheri. “In that time frame, we were able to open up a third classroom. Each classroom has the same structure with up to 12-14 children in each room and three staff, including a special education teacher, an early childhood education co-teacher, and a teaching assistant.”
The classroom ratio of adults to students was far lower than the maximums set by New York State, and functioned by design to create an environment of support where every child could reach their goals. Spotted Zebra also differed from the competition in their on-site support staff of occupational, physical, and speech therapists to work with students who require additional interventions. Sheri’s experience in grants management and facility licensing was critical to the center’s success in starting up and surviving the first few years. With Sheri’s guidance, Spotted Zebra met high standards to achieve licensure both from the NYS Department of Education as a special education program and the NYS Department of Children and Family Services as a preschool facility. Spotted Zebra’s licensed psychologist and therapists are able to travel to homes and preschools to evaluate a child and provide parents with immediate feedback.
In addition to offering unparalleled services on-site, Spotted Zebra grew to 36 children in 2008 by meeting a critical need for working families with hours from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., every day of the week, 50 weeks a year. The center continued to grow with each year, even adding a kindergarten classroom when Alex and Mackenzie were five. Adding the kindergarten class was a huge success for Sheri’s business and her children.
“By the time Alex left Spotted Zebra, he was totally declassified for services and ready to enter a traditional classroom setting,” explains Sheri. “There was the question when Alex and Mackenzie left for first grade if I would stay with the business, but I realized that the center offers so much hope to families and it was important to me to continue. We had a seven-year lease and in 2011 we started to look for new space to allow for expanding the business.”
When the property owners of their leased-location agreed to sell Spotted Zebra two acres of land to expand their existing building, Sheri developed plans with Scott for a 9,000-square foot preschool with all the space the teachers and students could imagine. But staying put was surprisingly difficult after a neighboring company filed an Article 78 to object to their planned project, and delays and legal fees started mounting up. The obstacles Sheri encountered in trying to expand at the original site ultimately led to an even more suitable solution. Sheri finally withdrew the expansion plans in July 2013 after seeing a 12,000-square foot building on Computer Drive East in Albany that seemed ideal --- in almost every way.
“At the time, the building was listed for a million dollars and that had not been in our budget. The additional personal funds we had planned for the expansion had been spent on legal fees. With renovations, the final price tag totaled 1.6 million dollars. Thankfully we had fabulous partners who stuck with us,” says Sheri. “You dream about having a banking partner who really knows you. Throughout this whole process, our bank was really behind us. First Niagara Bank brought in the 504 program and it just all clicked and fell into place. We were able to afford our dream.”
With the help of an SBA-backed 504 loan through First Niagara and ESCDC, Spotted Zebra was able to purchase the building in 2014 and transform the large complex into a 21st century preschool with five classrooms, individual therapy rooms, indoor playroom, and administrative offices. Scott’s knowledge of building codes and architectural skills resulted in a creative environment where children can move, learn and play that was on time and on budget.
Sheri’s new location offers parents a wider range of opportunities for their children than before. The larger space enabled Sheri to add two “drop-in” style programs that offer Spotted Zebra-level services on a part-time basis. The Bizzy Beez Activity Center offers an indoor, multi-sensory environment with the flexibility to be used for Saturday community events, organizations for adults needing therapies, and children’s birthday parties. The Speckled Zebra Toddler Room is a play-based program for two and three-year olds offered three times a week. The center added “push-in” services where Spotted Zebra special education teachers provide part-time services to other preschools. Spotted Zebra’s latest innovation is a training series for other preschool providers and daycares on inclusivity, playing with a purpose, and challenging behaviors.
Ten years after starting Spotted Zebra, Sheri’s team of 50 employees delivers quality, individualized instruction for over 200 students from across the Capital Region. Sheri still knows each child by name and works constantly, even scheduling herself in the rotation as a teaching assistant when coverage is needed. Sheri measures the success of her business in the growth of each child who walks through the doors.
“To see the kids come here and grow is so rewarding for me. It means a lot when I can say as a provider to a parent that I’ve been in their shoes and it’s sincere. I trust a lot to our teachers and together we create a positive team environment for children. We have families who bring all their children here, whether or not they have a special need,” says Sheri.
Originally published on the U.S. Small Business Administration, Read the Article Here.