Head of the Class

Entrepreneurs are making the grade with educational services that go beyond the 3 R's.

Heidi Gold-Dworkin didn't set out to be an entrepreneur; she just wanted to teach her young daughter about science. But when Gold-Dworkin, a scientist with degrees in molecular biology and biochemistry, went looking for children's science classes in her area, she came up empty-handed.

So in 1991, she started teaching classes herself at a local community center for children aged 3 to 12. The first class filled up. So did the second-and the third. Soon, parents across Connecticut were calling to put their children on waiting lists for Gold-Dworkin's increasingly popular class, which mixed hands-on projects with simple lectures about science. Kids learned about why the sky is blue, what makes a kaleidoscope work and similar fun topics.

"Little Scientist was born out of my love of science and children," explains Gold-Dworkin, 36, who with $75,000 turned her classes into a full-time business in 1995 with longtime friend Donna Goodman Lee, 37, the previous owner of a graphic design and marketing business. "I realized there was an incredible market for this [service]." Indeed, the two have decided to begin franchising their successful concept this year.

The Ansonia, Connecticut, entrepreneur shares a common bond with many entrepreneurs who provide children's educational services: Her kids led her to a great business idea.

Neither government statistics nor university studies will confirm that American schools have been cutting back on educational enhancement programs like the one Gold-Dworkin sought for her daughter. But ask any parent, and you'll get plenty of anecdotal evidence that there's a great need for companies offering educational services for kids, whether it's science classes or simply tutoring in reading and writing.

The American Association of Educators in Private Practice (AAEPP) confirms this trend. When the association began in 1990 as a support center for entrepreneurs like Gold-Dworkin, it had just 16 members. Today, its membership has swelled to 500. "The sector of the population [that needs remedial learning] is growing, and I think private practitioners can fill that need," says AAEPP executive director Chris Yelich.

For example, Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., a children's learning center franchise, was hired to take over some of the teaching curriculum in Chicago's public schools, a deal worth an estimated $1.9 million, according to Education Week newspaper. This isn't Sylvan's first foray into the public education sector. It already has inroads at schools in Baltimore; Washington, DC; and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Besides the increased need for remedial education, Yelich believes some school districts are cutting back on extracurricular programs such as art, music and computers.

Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization in Denver that works with policy makers nationwide, agrees. "When districts are under extreme budget constraints, they try to keep budget cuts away from academic classes," she says. The first things to go aren't core curriculum classes like math and social studies but classes in other fields often considered "extras."

As school budgets are cut, many school districts are turning to outside services to fill the gap. The East Hartford, Connecticut, public school system, for instance, could afford to bring in Little Scientist to teach eight classes to its elementary school children, thanks to a government grant.

In other cases, parents step in. With High Touch-High Tech, a science-related company in Coral Springs, Florida, parents pay between $4.50 and $6 per student to bring in scientists for what's called an in-school field trip. "Because parents send in money," says Daniel Shaw, who co-founded the company in 1991 with wife Ellen and approximately $15,000 in start-up funds, "it doesn't cost the school district anything." In fact, when the Shaws first pitched the local PTA, one of the selling points was that the school district wouldn't have to raise taxes or cut funds from other programs to afford the company's services.

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Leah Ingram is a freelance writer and the author of 14 books, including Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier on Less (Adams Media, 2010).

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This article was originally published in the June 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Head of the Class.

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