Success Story: The Spotted Zebra Learning Center
At the Spotted Zebra Learning Center, students, parents and visitors alike are greeted by friendly staff, soothing colors and light, and the energy of children at play. It’s a unique environment, and exactly what owner Sheri Townsend set out to create when she founded the preschool in order to fulfill a need for her own family.
In 2002, Albany, NY natives Sheri and Scott Townsend welcomed their twins, Alex and Mackenzie. When Alex was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at 18 months, the couple began early-intervention services. But when it came time for a structured preschool program, as the commissioner of Youth and Work Services for the City of Albany, Sheri needed a childcare center that accommodated her full-time work schedule and allowed for her twins to stay together. Quickly after starting her search, Sheri realized that what she was looking for simply did not exist in the area. Many of the programs for Alex were half-day (forcing Sheri or Scott to leave work to bring him to a babysitter) and would have separated the children. With experience creating youth programs, Sheri decided if she couldn’t find something that worked for her family, she’d create it herself.
So, in 2004, with Scott’s support, Sheri started the Spotted Zebra Learning Center with two classrooms and 10 teachers. The 4,200-square foot space provided both special needs and mainstream preschoolers a place for balanced learning, where occupational physical and speech therapists, as well as psychologists provided on-site services. In just six months, Sheri left her full-time position to manage and grow her business.
By 2008, the Spotted Zebra had expanded to 36 students and while Sheri had added more classrooms, her waitlist kept growing. In 2014, she decided to move from the rented location and purchased an 11,000 square foot building, which she and Scott renovated to create a larger facility. “The cost of the building was not in our budget, but we didn’t want to turn down the opportunity to grow,” says Sheri. “Thankfully, KeyBank introduced us to the 504 program through The 504 Company and we were able to move forward with our expansion,” says Sheri.
With the help of The 504 Company and KeyBank, Sheri secured a combination of conventional and SBA-backed 504 loans and to finance the $1 million project. In addition to expanding the physical space, she created the Bizzy Beez Activity Center, a drop-in style program that offers part-time options, providing parents an even wider range of opportunities for their children.
Thirteen years after opening, the Spotted Zebra now has more than 50 employees and provides services for more than 200 children in the Capital Region. Still heavily involved in the day-to-day tasks, Sheri is determined to provide a space for students to grow and develop. “On my own search for flexible childcare, I saw an opportunity to help families like my own. Watching kids come here and grow is so rewarding and I’m so proud of the community we’ve created here,” says Sheri.