STORY BY LINDA BAKER // PHOTOS BY LEAH NASH
On the second floor of a KinderCare center in downtown Portland, eight preschoolers are coloring pictures of Chinese characters while listening to their teacher speak in Mandarin. On the other side of the room, which is decorated with parasols and Chinese lanterns, another group is interacting with a different teacher — who is speaking in English. Eventually the groups will switch, with the entire class spending half the day learning in Chinese, the other half in English.
Now in its third year, the Mandarin immersion program got its start when Knowledge Universe, KinderCare’s parent company, came across a model program while scouting acquisitions in Singapore. “We thought this was a really innovative and important way to deliver dual language, which is something the United States is particularly remiss in,” says Elanna Yalow, executive vice president at Knowledge Universe. “It is much easier to develop second-language competency at a young age,” Yalow says. “So we brought that program over and implemented it in several locations.”
KinderCare’s Mandarin immersion program is a window on the world of Knowledge Universe, a global education services conglomerate that has its U.S. headquarters in Portland. The company, which employs 40,000 people on three continents, is the largest single private provider of early childhood education services in the country. It also has the biggest market share in the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Singapore, where the company’s global headquarters are located.
Felicia Thornton is Knowledge Universe's Portland-based CEO for U.S. operations. KU is the leading player in a market expected to be worth $39 billion by 2015.
Founded by former junk bond king Michael Milken and his brother, Lowell Milken, in 1996, Knowledge Universe, which earned $1.6 billion in revenue last year, targets early childhood learning programs. But the company also oversees or has a stake in business units in K-12, online and post-secondary education. “We are cradle to as-long-as you-are-a-lifelong-learner,” says Felicia Thornton, Knowledge Universe’s Portland-based chief executive officer for U.S. operations. Like the Mandarin program, the broader corporate mission is based on global best practices, Thornton says.
“When you look at Singapore, you realize they don’t differentiate early childhood from K-12 or university,” says Thornton. “They look at that entire continuum as critically important.” Singapore’s growth rate is 20%, she adds. “It’s not by natural resources, not by anything other than investment in human capital. It’s just staggering.”
Knowledge Universe isn’t alone in touting the benefits of high-quality education, especially early childhood education, as the key to a nation’s economic success. As concerns about U.S. educational performance and lack of competitiveness mount, state and national leaders — from Kitzhaber to Obama — are calling for universal preschool as a centerpiece of education reform. These initiatives would build on existing state-funded preschool programs, which already serve more than 1 million 3- to 4-year-olds around the country.
In this environment, private sector innovation is only one part of the company’s business. One quarter of the 200,000 children Knowledge Universe serves in the U.S. receive a child care subsidy for low-income families, a reflection of the changing nature of for-profit care in this country, and the public-private partnerships that may become the signature of early childhood education initiatives.
Such alliances are vulnerable to the recession. They also spotlight the role of the for-profit sector, not always a welcome participant in the K-12 arena, in shaping the public preschool agenda. But with its global footprint, lofty rhetoric and socioeconomically diverse client base, KU is plowing ahead, carving out a niche in a market that by 2015 is expected to exceed $39 billion a year, according to Global Industry Analysts.