Back to School
Story by Jana Adams Mitcham
Photos by Andrew Davis Tucker
Ag economics grad takes a leading role at new University Childcare Center
Furniture was shrouded in plastic, and construction crews swarmed around the former Navy School building as the opening day for the new University of Georgia University Childcare Center neared. Wes Zwirn was in the mix of things, meeting with architects, preparing for the upcoming state licensing date and answering questions right and left.
Pulling plastic wrap off a chair in the director's office, he settled down for a few minutes to talk about how he reached this point in his life.
"Two and a half years ago, I had no idea where we'd be," he said, leaning back in the chair. "We've worked really hard, and we've had a lot of luck."
After earning two degrees in agricultural economics (BS – Ag Economics, '00, MS – Ag Economics, '02) and working as a purchasing manager for Pennington Seed based in Madison, Ga., Zwirn was ready for business — the business of childcare.
The career path from ag economics to childcare seems a curious one, causing a sort of mental double take, but after seven years, Zwirn was ready to part ways with the agricultural aspect of business.
"We want parents to feel like we're anticipating their needs and providing great customer service."
— Wes Zwirn
Today, Zwirn, via Prodigies Child Care Management LLC, serves as the administrator and interim assistant director for the newly opened University Childcare Center (UCC) on UGA's new Health Sciences Campus. He handles the business and hospitality-type services, and director Nadia Perez is responsible for the center's educational administration.
"I have a knack for business and people and can hold my own when it comes to childcare, but Nadia is the real expert," he said. "We want parents to feel like we're anticipating their needs and providing great customer service."
Ultimately, they're committed to helping young children develop a love of learning and curiosity about the world.
Ag Economics Translates into Small Business
Whenever Zwirn visited his grandparents, there was corn as far as he could see. They lived in Iowa, where both his parents grew up, and "there was just corn everywhere," he said.
Although he grew up in Lilburn, Ga. (not exactly an agricultural hub), his family's roots in a farming community and his own interest in economics led Zwirn down the path of agricultural economics.
"I knew that agriculture and economics interested me," he said. "In ag economics I saw them paired together. I don't regret it for a second. I learned a whole lot."
Zwirn said he took valuable lessons away from his years at both CAES and Pennington Seed.
"In ag economics classes, they are teaching business principles on a broad scale," Zwirn said. "Now I have to report to UGA on the center's break-even point, and that's a concept we talked about daily in class. The economics aspect was great for me. You can apply that to whatever product, whether it's agriculture or people."
The experience he gained at Pennington Seed taught him a lot about the practical side of business, Zwirn said. "It was an agricultural company, but I was looking at things like profit and loss statements," he said. Several years into the job, Zwirn realized he wanted something different.
"The part I grew to miss was dealing with people," he admitted. "My dad's in hospitality and I grew up with that."
James Epperson, a CAES agricultural economics professor, recalled that trait in Zwirn.
|Zwirn might be an administrator, but he often spends more time away from his desk than behind it. Between updating the UCC's website, answering the phone and greeting families, he also helps keep the center running smoothly by cooking, washing dishes, planning the weekly menu, shopping for groceries, mopping and sweeping, taking out the trash and even cleaning windows.|
"He had a lot of people skills and was very likable," Epperson said.
And while he was surprised by Zwirn’s transition from agriculture to childcare, he agrees, "running a business is running a business."
He also noted that as a student Zwirn had been "somewhat bold." For example, Zwirn decided to attend the University of Wyoming for a semester — not something most students would do.
That bold streak continued, and a couple of years ago Zwirn and his wife talked it over and decided to start their own business. Childcare was a field neither of them knew much about at the time.
"We always heard that Athens needs quality childcare," Zwirn said.
As the couple discussed their options, Jennifer, who is a manager at SunTrust Bank in Athens, learned that her assistant manager's wife had worked in childcare for years. The daydreams started to take shape, the plans unfolded and Little Prodigies opened in Athens, Ga., in 2009 as the Zwirns were expecting their first child. The childcare center focuses on incorporating the arts into everyday learning, and that assistant manager's wife, Kathy Ashley, is now the director.
Ashley said Zwirn is a "people person" and great to work with. She also pointed out his high level of motivation and energy.
"That's just everyday life with him," she said.
The Zwirns now have two children, Conner, almost 3, and Emmie, who is 6 months old. Both attend Little Prodigies.
"Because we have children this age, it helps us to know what parents are looking for," Zwirn said.
University Childcare Center
The UCC, located at 111 Bowstrom Road, is the first building to be renovated and in use on UGA's new Health Sciences Campus.
The center has 13 classes and can house up to 146 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 4 years. Like Little Prodigies and UGA's McPhaul Center – which has an enrollment waiting list – UCC will follow the Creative Curriculum, which Ashley describes as a nationally-known curriculum that's parent-friendly.
"Our team came in and showed what we could bring to the table. A lot of Little Prodigies clients are UGA people, so we know what they need and their schedules."
- Wes Zwirn
UCC has a student-teacher ratio of four to one in the infant, crawler and 1-year-old classrooms, six to one for 2-year-olds and seven to one for the 3- and 4-year-olds. As of its opening week, the center had 60 children enrolled.
The UCC resulted from an effort involving faculty and staff over a number of years, explained Tom Gausvik, associate vice president for human resources at UGA, who oversees Zwirn's contract.
"The goal is to help meet the childcare needs of UGA's faculty, staff and students," he said.
During a recent tour of the facility, Zwirn led a couple with a tiny daughter, her black hair wispy in pigtails, through rooms painted in shades of yellow, green and orange, each with a wide span of outside windows providing bright, natural light. Trees were being planted around playgrounds encircled by tricycle tracks. The bathrooms in the classrooms have childsized fixtures, and the rooms are fitted with tiny tables, chairs and cubbies in blonde wood.
Once the tours were over, Zwirn spoke about being involved in the project from the beginning.
Zwirn, via Prodigies Child Care Management LLC, followed the university's bid process.
"Our team came in and showed what we could bring to the table," Zwirn said. "A lot of Little Prodigies clients are UGA people, so we know what they need and their schedules."
In August 2011, Zwirn and the management company got a contract for two and a half years, with an option to renew.
"My impressions of Wes have been very positive," Gausvik said. "My staff and I have enjoyed a very good relationship with him throughout the construction and startup of the center."
As with Little Prodigies, Zwirn relies on experienced educators and childcare professionals, such as director Perez.
Zwirn works with a team of experienced educators and childcare professionals, like UCC Director Nadia Perez (above), who oversees the center's educational administration, to keep the new facility running smoothly.
"She's a parent of young children and she’s got some great background experience," he said.
Perez relocated with her family to Georgia from Michigan, where she had initially worked at Michigan State University's child development laboratory as a child development specialist and later as an instructor in childcare administration. She also spent time in Beijing, China as a principal at 3e International School, a collaboration between Michigan State University and the Sun Wah Foundation.
"So far it seems like we are going to be a pretty good fit," she said of working with Zwirn. "We've worked very hard to get everything set up and the center looks amazing. I'm encouraging people to come and check it out."
Gausvik also noted the pair's commitment to the center's success.
"One of the goals was to hire experienced and caring teachers, and that's what we were able to do," he said. "Every detail of the building and grounds was designed to provide a safe and fun environment for the children. We realize the success of the center will ultimately be determined by the children and parents served by the UCC teachers and staff, who are dedicated to delivering the highest quality childcare experience."
With a knowledgeable team in place and Zwirn's business background and commitment to creating a positive learning environment, the UCC is looking forward to making 2012 a year of growth and learning for many UGA families.