Preschool is no longer just about finger-painting and nap time. New research is fueling the creation of more benchmarks and expectations for younger children, and as technology becomes a larger part of everyone’s life, the difference between children who grow up with a computer in their home and those who do not is striking. 

Hatch sells scientifically research based products and value-added services that help teachers get the most out of the latest classroom technology and give lower-income children the access to technology they’ll need to compete later in life. 

“It’s commonly referred to as the digital divide,” said Ginny Norton, president of Hatch. “Our mission is to help every child enjoy an early, positive experience with computers, which is why 75% of our business is in the at-risk sector; we’re the leading supplier of computers to Head Start classrooms nationwide.”

Putting the latest in education technology in more classrooms is a good start, but Norton explained that Hatch takes its mission a step further than that. “Anyone can sell a manipulative like a block, but we ask how we can make it easier for teachers to integrate products into their larger goals, and see the benefits of those products faster and easier,” she said.

New strategy

Norton joined the company 15 years ago, when it was still a small player in the pre-K classroom supplies market. A family-owned business until two years ago, Hatch is transitioning from a tightly controlled, small company to one with a strategic vision and the ability to invest in itself.

Norton explained that before the sale, everything about Hatch’s operations was carefully orchestrated: the company invested only what it had to and carefully controlled its growth. Today, the company is enjoying the structure of its first strategic plan, which allows its employees to run with new ideas that fit into the plan.

“It has been a learning experience for everyone here, moving into a unified, strategic way of thinking,” Norton said. “But we’ve been able to grow in ways that were never possible before, and we’re enjoying it.”

She said Hatch set itself apart early on through a focus on technology and its installation and lifetime support services. That focus is reflected in the company’s new strategic plan, which called for the creation of a product development department. In March, the company brought one of the foremost early childhood researchers in the country in to head that department and develop products and services that will help teachers guide their charges to reach new national and state pre-K standards.

“We are using the same research to develop our products as the federal and state governments are using to establish these standards,” Norton said. “We can help teachers get these technologies in their classrooms and learn to use them effectively.”

Another central strategic initiative is for Hatch to become the best employer in its community. Norton emphasized how important focused, dedicated employees have been and continue to be to Hatch’s success, but the company’s tradition of hiring skilled jacks-of-all-trades needs to be shelved in favor of hiring masters. With roughly 200,000 people living in the city limits of Winston-Salem, Norton knows the company has a small pond to fish in when looking for a director of marketing with five to seven years of experience, for example.

“One of our strategic initiatives deals with this challenge by calling for a top-of-the-line benefits package, which we’ve improved in the last year or so with a profit-sharing program, an in-office exercise facility and wellness program, and low-cost childcare. We also have always allowed dogs to come to work; we have five canine co-workers that are here with us every day,” said Norton.

Other future initiatives focus on marketing, specifically through Hatch’s Web site. Norton said she aims to have the site refurbished in the first quarter of 2009 to allow for expanded e-commerce capabilities and a broader Internet presence.

“We are still working on all of our strategic initiatives from last year, but we’ve made a lot of progress, and they have helped set the tone for our future growth,” Norton said.

Above and beyond

The first product Hatch’s product development department worked on is Smart Technology’s interactive whiteboard. The company became a distributor in May, but it spent the last year developing an applications package to help teachers get the most out of this powerful tool. The package includes 1,100 research-based activities, standards documented by state, and installation and training by Hatch’s support team.

Norton said Hatch has always had this model for its support team, which not only installs equipment, but trains teachers one-on-one on the equipment, as well as any other computer program they want to use but don’t understand.

Bridging the digital divide requires more than classroom technology, however. Norton explained that today’s pre-K children from lower-income families will be competing against children who grew up with one or more computers in their homes, even in their bedrooms.

That’s why Hatch pledged, in 2002, to donate a new computer to every family that moved into a Habitat for Humanity home built in Forsyth County, NC. So far, the company has donated more than 50 computers, but that’s not all. Before sending the computer to the family, the company discusses which subject the children enjoy most or have the most trouble with, and what the family is interested in. Hatch employees then bring the computer to the house and teach the family how to install and operate it.

Norton said this is a program everyone at the company is excited to continue and add to as Hatch grows.

“With such a talented and generous group of people, it’s no wonder what we’ve been able to accomplish and the families and children we’ve been able to help. I’ve been working with many of these people for 15 years. We’re a family, and we are all equally committed to being the best in the industry. It’s not hard to communicate a mission and a vision to co-workers who are thirsty for it,” Norton concluded.