The face of education is changing in America, and entrepreneurs are leading the way, creating for-profit learning centers to fill the educational gaps left by schools weakened by budget constraints. Also fueling the trend: Many public schools are slow to install new technology and train teachers to use it.
Chris Yelich, executive director of the Association of Educators in Private Practice in Watertown, Wisconsin, says educational specialists in almost every field--the arts, sciences, technology--are providing more alternatives than ever before. "Parents are always looking for ways to help their children succeed, and this trend allows parents to shop around for providers who can meet their children's needs," says Yelich. "The biggest challenge in this business is educating parents. They're not used to spending disposable income on education, and they're not used to seeing educators in private practice."
Victoria Ulmer, 33, was at the forefront of the trend when she launched STEPS Performing Arts Center of Stanford Inc., a dance, music, drama and arts center, 15 years ago. Based in Stamford, Connecticut, the $750,000-per-year business has 17 employees and caters to children 2 years and older. Ulmer was 18 when she began giving dance lessons part time, funding the business from her paycheck as a pharmacist's assistant and cold-calling people from the phone book to generate a clientele. In 1990, she and partner David Nanarello, 38, went full time with the business, which has since grown by graceful leaps and bounds.
In addition to a variety of arts-related lessons, STEPS provides field trips, open houses, performances and a birthday party service, as well as a boutique where children can buy dance gear. Ulmer, who believes children are hungry for the lessons and discipline she provides, says children encourage their parents to take them to lessons: "I have [some students] who would be here seven days a week if they could."
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