Passion for education creates tutoring success

By Posted on Oct 23 2014 | By

Warrenton Huntington Center scores high marks for students and owner

Donna Isler’s love of learning is in her DNA. Her great, great grandfather was the first black lawyer in Washington, D.C. Her grandfather was head of the Linguistics Department at the University of Michigan and her father led the Orthodontics Department at Howard University.

“Education is in my blood,” said Isler. Education, coupled with a driving work ethic that created five tutoring centers in 10 years. “I’ve always believed in providing every student the best education possible.”

The Jamaican native knows first-hand those who are not able to receive an education because of the cost. Being able to help others is “extremely important” to her.

Early in her career the speech language pathologist worked at D.C. General Hospital and for the Fairfax County school system. But the entrepreneurs lurking in her and her husband wanted to build a business of their own. “It was the combination of my passion for education and his desire to own a business that we ended up choosing Huntington,” said Isler.

With over 37 years experience in premier student tutoring, Huntington Learning Centers is a pioneer in the field. It has a proven model in supplemental education for those committed to building a successful franchise business.

“What we really liked about Huntington is the founders are actively involved in the business,” said Isler. “We see them every year at various meetings.”

Each franchise is independently owned and operated and is provided corporate support in teacher training and student instruction methodology.

In 2005, Isler opened her first center in Manassas and subsequently opening centers in Fredericksburg, Lake Ridge, Stafford, and Warrenton. She has 15 full-time administrative staff and employs 25 to 32 part-time certified school teachers at each location.

Success is demanding
The firm’s growth has been steady but demanding. “Five centers is a lot to manage,” said Isler. In the tutoring industry customer service is extremely important. “It’s not as easy as I would have anticipated.” Hiring and training staff, while still teaching whenever she can, requires a full-time commitment.

Her favorite aspects of the job are administering student evaluations and working with parents. The evaluations are critical to a student’s performance since it identifies strengths and weakness prior to developing a specialized program of instruction.

“It’s an academic x-ray,” Isler explains. “It pinpoints the areas to work on and focuses on an enrichment program of remedial study skills.” The emphasis is often on building reading, comprehension and math skills.

All of the instruction is individualized with recommendations to parents on what can be done at home to reinforce classroom instruction. One typical technique Isler uses is assigning students the task of reading a newspaper then writing a summary of what they read. “Writing is the active form of reading,” she emphasizes.

Each center has 38 to 70 students depending on the time of year. There is no set time limit for the length of individualized instruction. Typically, during the school year a student will attend four to six hours a week. During the summer program it runs 12 to 16 hours.

“When school is out Huntington is in,” said Isler. “It’s the perfect time for students to build their skills for the upcoming school year.” Mid-June to mid-April is the busy time of the year. Issuance of second semester report cards—when detention notices go out—also see an increase in student enrollment. Alarmed parents want help immediately.

While 90 percent of the student body is kindergarten through 12th grade, adult instruction is provided, often in building English language skills and the study of foreign languages, mostly French and Spanish. “Our oldest student was 67,” said Isler.

Business strategies
Operating a small business is fraught with challenges. The moribund economy of the last several years has taken a toll on many local businesses. One negative impact unique to the DC area was the government shutdown in 2013.

With government and military families laid off during the shutdown, parents were worried about spending money for tutoring. It’s difficult to make such an investment when concerned about paying household bills.

School closures due to snow days in 2014 also saw a reduction in the number of Huntington students.

“We’ve had to get creative on how to cut expenses and while working with parents so they can continue” sending their children to the centers.

Active involvement with the business community is key in building the firm. Isler uses grassroots marketing to increase student enrollment. This includes providing promotional literature to appropriate restaurant, retail and medical offices that highlight the importance of tutoring.

Often customers have free time while waiting for appointments or services and can educate themselves on the benefits of a Huntington student experience. The firm’s newsletter “Huntington News for Parents” is a vehicle for driving business to the company while providing useful information to parents of school-age children.

Additionally, newspaper advertising, Google Adwords, direct mail and parent referrals help strengthen the business. It’s a multi-channel approach employed on a daily basis. “Yes, it’s a franchise firm but it operates as a small business” and it is up to Isler and her staff to build enrollment.

In the course of ten years, Isler has learned two important lessons: listening to her staff and learning from past mistakes. When things don’t go right one needs to develop a more effective response to a problem to avoid repeating it.

As an example, working within the Huntington structure requires compliance to proven educational strategies the corporate firm has developed. “It’s like learning a new language and new ways of doing things. I can’t expect a new teacher to pickup up the Huntington system and perform at the same level as I do. Everybody has a different learning curve,” said Isler.

So she has to work closely with instructors to assure the classroom strategies are implemented. One mistake she learned from was retaining staff that was unable to accept the Huntington instructional format.

“It’s was hard letting go of teachers who could not adapt to our structure but it’s necessary to the success of student performance,” said Isler. In some cases teachers simply cannot implement the necessary curriculum given their previous training. “We must follow our program because it works,” said Isler.

Personal satisfaction
After ten years in building the business this passion-driven educator even now becomes emotional when enrolling a student. “I still cry during the initial conference” if parents are struggling with a child in need. “But it’s very gratifying. There’s nothing better than when a light bulb goes off and a student makes a learning connection. It’s the moment they get it and they understand it.”

Other collateral rewards unfold when a student comes to class excited about their first B on a school exam. Or a parent relates how their son wants to pickup a book and read it when he has never wanted to in the past.

So what might be some important lessons learned in achieving success? “First, don’t take on more than you can handle. I am married with three children. I still work on the weekends. It’s gratifying but hard work.”

Secondly, success is all about customer service. Meeting and greeting new parents and students is important. “It’s like inviting them into your kitchen and having a conversation. The family is bringing their child to us because of academic concerns. By the time they leave that are literally changing their child’s life,” said Isler.

The success of the center even extends to her daughters. All three of her children attend the Huntington center to further improve school performance.

“I truly believe in this business,” said Isler.

Published in the Fall 2014 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.

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