Ex-footballer turns skills to running kindergarten

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am

It is a fair bet that Patrick Lefebvre is the only French-Canadian former professional footballer working in Shanghai - and an even safer wager that he is the only one running a kindergarten.

Mr Lefebvre, like so many before him, turned up in the east-coast city to see what was happening and ended up being mesmerised and galvanised by the opportunities. When the Quebec native mentioned at a social gathering that he had experience running a kindergarten in his home city - voila! - within a matter of months he was planning the Child Academy with fellow investors.

The academy is located in the new German Centre in Pudong and adopts a liberal and modern approach to teaching tots, eschewing the rote-learning system that is so prevalent on the mainland. Long before the building was complete, Mr Lefebvre had attracted keen interest from expatriate parents, allowing him to forge ahead with an ambitious programme.

Mr Lefebvre, 26, is no stranger to the business of running schools for children. He started one from scratch in Quebec, charging significantly more per day than the state schools, and sold the business after only one year at a profit.

A quick inspection of pre-school options in Shanghai convinced him that a similar business model could be adapted for local needs.

'I think I can give a lot more value and offer more,' says Mr Lefebvre, one of three investors in the Child Academy. 'Everything here is custom-made in the way we want, whether it is the computer room or the gym.

'It is beautiful - we have used high-quality Japanese wood. Each classroom is a different shape and all are designed for pre-schoolers. We have used blue colours and cushions so there is a feeling of calm. Children can move easily from one place to another.'

Mr Lefebvre says the Child Academy has also ensured that the most important element of all - the teachers - meet high standards. The 10 members of staff are expatriates and Chinese who will be teaching children from Singapore, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy and Canada.

The initial roll call is 35 students, with capacity to accommodate 120 youngsters.

'We want to give the children high self-esteem,' says Mr Lefebvre. 'It is a very interactive programme, not the old way of 'you listen, I talk'. Teachers guide children in the way they want to learn. It is based on the Canadian system, which is one of the best.'

Learning Canuck-style does not come cheap, with full-day monthly fees set at HK$6,000. If all goes according to plan, the backers hope to recoup their investments within a few years - and look at the feasibility of opening similar schools in different mainland cities and other parts of the world.

Getting permission for anything education-related is a cumbersome process requiring chops from many official bodies, but overall Mr Lefebvre is impressed with the whizz-bang speed of Shanghai.

'Anything is possible here if you want it,' he says. 'In Canada, everything closes at 5pm on Friday, whereas here people work on weekends. I am pretty adaptable and very comfortable here in Shanghai.'

Mr Lefebvre, who is fluent in English and French, studied Putonghua in Canada, but has not, to date, made much headway in improving his command of the language.

The frantic rush to open the school on schedule has left little time for study or socialising, although he does find time to watch the odd game of football. Mr Lefebvre was a professional soccer player with the Montreal Impact before a serious knee injury cut short a fledgling career.

'I find business more fun,' adds the now-retired striker. 'It is like sports - you can win.'