Avery Ma – Primrose Schools
Ask Avery Ma what he envisions in classrooms filled with young students and he might answer that he sees them swimming with dolphins or frolicking with whales—even if the classroom is in arid Arizona.
Making this happen won’t require thousands of gallons of seawater or scuba suits and flippers for teachers and students, not with the potential of the augmented reality future Ma believes could someday be part of daily learning.
A former U.S. Marine and Iraq War veteran—anything but virtual reality—Ma now leads the technological metamorphosis at the Primrose Schools, a national network of pre-K learning centers. Having deployed a new school management system, he’s now helping the education team deliver a more dynamic curriculum platform that expands the tools to support teachers.
“I want to help our education experts deliver our proven curriculum while positioning our schools and industry as evolving with tech and keep us on the cutting edge,” Ma says. “If I can invest time and energy in an organization focused on education for today and a stronger tomorrow, that’s very rewarding.”
With more than 440 schools in 30 states, Primrose Schools is a system of franchises that provide early education and child care to about 65,000 children from 6 weeks to 6 years old.
The first Primrose school was opened in 1982 by founders Paul and Marcy Erwin in Marietta, Georgia. The Erwins were focused on providing education, as much as playtime, for pre-K students, transcending traditional day care models.
“It boils down to some simple foundational elements: active minds, healthy bodies, happy hearts,” Ma says. “We provide nurturing guidance and purposeful play and give premium security and safety for the children in our schools. A lot of schools tout their curriculum—ours has been analyzed, is data-informed and shows proven outcomes, so we can actually say we do provide a better experience.”
That better experience needed an updated school management system used by the company and franchise owners, he adds. So in 2018, he and a group of staff and franchise owners began a project to replace the previous 20-plus-year-old platform that tracked the students who attend each school and provide real-time feedback to parents.
Although initial searches showed there was nothing that met Primrose’s needs out of the box, the team picked Procare Solutions, a child-care management solutions company with more than 30 years of experience supporting 30,000 child-care businesses across the U.S.
Procare’s products handle everything from tuition billing to learning management plans—with lessons, attendance tracking and alignment with early learning standards required in all 50 states. It also offers an app for parents to track their child’s performance and progress and communicate with teachers and staff.
“There was a dearth of mature tech on newer platforms,” Ma says. “What we selected meets the operational and administrative needs of our schools, but it’s also completely web- and app-based, so it’s easier to implement and build upon.”
Scaled to learn
Ma rolled out the Procare system in 2019, but only after extensive research and testing with Primrose franchise owners and staff around the U.S. It was a process that included a dozen product demonstrations from vendors and live, in-classroom system tests with multiple solutions.
“It was the results of proof of concepts in the schools and our teams at the support center that gave us confidence to proceed,” he explains. “The franchise owners were crucial to the selection process, so it was up to us to give them something that would continue to evolve with Primrose’s exceptional standards.”
Procare is also scalable, a crucial requirement for leveraging ever-advancing child-care technologies, like AR, that will serve a post-pandemic environment, Ma adds.
“This is important as field trips get scaled back,” he says. “It’s a question of how to bring something visually appealing with a measure of dimension to the class.”
Though he sees AR as a wonderful immersive tool, Ma says it also has its limits, as does all technology. Immersive is one thing, but an exclusive reliance on devices, especially during early childhood development, is not healthy. It’s a lesson Ma took to heart as he watched his 2-year-old daughter pick up a magazine and flick on the paper to try and change an image.
“It’s guaranteed my kids will adopt new technology, but at this age, I should be concerned to how they relate to human beings first and tech second,” he notes.
From the Corps to the classroom
Ma’s own educational path was not always as structured as that which Primrose students experience.
A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, he recalls breezing through high school before enrolling at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1998. In 2009, he earned his bachelor’s in management with an emphasis in information systems.
“If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 11 years for a bachelor’s degree,” he jokes, but that scorecard includes 7 1/2 years of service in the Marines, including time in Fallujah and participating in a humanitarian mission to the Dominican Republic.
With his degree in hand, Ma still brought his military training to bear when he began his IT career as both a freelance web programmer and information systems specialist for NETS Inc.
“It’s probably so ingrained in the way I approach tasks within a team,” he says.
In 2012, he joined Nebraska Book Company as a .NET web developer on Neebo.com, its retail initiative. Ma went from building the website to building an e-commerce team that landed on the Internet Retailers Top 500 list at 412.
While providing technology leadership for businesses in the apparel industry, he was invited to apply for the technology position at Primrose. After meeting Primrose’s CEO Jo Kirchner, Ma says he found the best place to apply his expertise and change lives.
“She sold me. I really love this organization,” he says. “I spent a lot of time staying on the forefront of e-commerce technology. Everything boiled down to the golden button, but this was a chance to step back because we aren’t selling widgets. The more children we serve, the better our communities will be for generations to come.”
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