Zapala Company brings Canadian bilingual childcare model Maple Bear to Australian shores

Zapala Company brings Canadian bilingual childcare model Maple Bear to Australian shores

Zapala Co founder and Maple Bear Australia director Carlos Ferri.

Brazilian-born Carlos Ferri won the Sydney Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2019 on the back of the success of his logistics software powerhouse Zapala, known for its Shipeezi program that is used by major retailers and shipping companies alike.

As an energetic presence wherever he goes, Ferri has always had many irons in the fire when it comes to business ventures including ideas such as international student exchange agency Educafy - a passion project that reflects his own experience as an immigrant in Australia.

So it comes as little surprise that the recently rebranded Zapala Co has now bundled up all its educational divisions into a joint venture with one of the world's leading franchises in bilingual education, which the entrepreneur plans to weave into the fabric of today's multicultural Australia.

Through its 50 per cent ownership of Maple Bear Australia, Zapala is teaming up with a Canadian-founded bilingual schooling model that is now in Brazilian hands and has found success all over the globe. Due diligence is already underway for eight early childcare centres to be rolled out.

It will still be a year before the recent census tells us how many Australians speak a language other than English at home, but in 2016 it was more than one in five.

While the demand for bilingual education is more clear-cut for migrants wanting to maintain a connection to culture, young parents are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of exposing children to different languages from a young age to improve brain plasticity, problem solving abilities and a range of other neurological functions.

"As a Brazillian immigrant who arrived in Australia 12 years ago not speaking a word of English, I know first-hand the benefits of being fluent in another language," Ferri says.

"With a high demand for quality education, particularly in early childhood, coupled with the sector being poised for massive growth, there has never been a better time to invest in education."

Ferri sees a market that is ripe for a shake-up, not only for bilingual early childcare but more structured learning programs in what is currently a very fragmented industry.

"We're not even looking to compete with any of the groups in Australia," Ferri tells Business News Australia.

"Goodstart are not really a competitor because they're a non-profit, they have about 650 centres, and the second-largest is G8 Education and it's a corporate company buying childcare centres and they don't have one single overarching program.

"You do have some international schools in specific languages, like German and French schools, but Maple Bear is different."

So how does the bilingual exposure work?

"That will be one hour per day in each class. We're not going to have one specific class that's going to be teaching a different language," he says.

"The program can be adapted to any language and it depends on the area. So if you come to the Northern Beaches [in Sydney] it might be French, Spanish, Portuguese, or if you go specifically to Chatswood in Sydney, you might have just Mandarin.

"But let's say there's an area where there's no clear cultural majority. There it could be that we cover French, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic for the entire year, changing it every quarter. Our program is to expose the children to different cultures they will encounter in real life when they grow up."

Childcare centres are only the beginning for Maple Bear's push into Australia. The curriculum has been applied globally with expertise from early childhood through to senior students, and Ferri is emboldened by the prestige of the Canadian education system in which it was developed, and which is also informing changes to the Australian curriculum.

"We don't want to steal students from primary schools - we want the kids actually studying in our childcare centres, and when they get older they'll be able to move on into our own schools. That's our plan, that's what happened in Brazil, India, all the countries where Maple Bear has expanded," he says.

"These centres that we're going after, they're all childcare centres, with kids from three months to five years before they go into kindergarten. That's what we're focusing on the next 24 months.

"As a brand, Maple Bear has primary as well as high school, but we're not bringing them into Australia probably in the next 24 to 36 months. That's when we'll bring in primary, and then after another 24 months, that's when we'll bring the high schools."

Ferri says there are three models for partners to get involved with Maple Bear centres, either as greenfield starting from scratch, conversion of an existing centre, or purchasing an operating centre. In all cases, the Maple Bear brand is applied with a curriculum that is constantly being refreshed based on best practice and the contributions of 250 Canadian faculty members.

The entrepreneur says due diligence is underway for eight centres on the East Coast while negotiations are taking place for six potential centres in Western Australia.

"All of them are trained. None of them will be teaching the Maple Bear program if they haven't been taught and trained, as well as actually having gone through a test," he concludes.

"We're not just buying childcare centres. We're looking to build and support a network."

There are currently more than 41,000 students in 500-plus Maple Bear early childhood, primary and secondary schools operating or opening worldwide.


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