Tutoring Company is Selling Solutions to Schools

Glenn Clayton was a college student in need of extra cash when he began tutoring. Before he knew it, he launched a full-fledged tutoring business.

He recruited other students as tutors and in no time at all, he secured an office space in Madison and Appleton Learning took off. In December, the company will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

“We quickly grew into the largest tutoring provider in North Alabama, ” Clayton says. It grew so fast that Clayton dropped out of college to manage it. He is the company president and chief executive officer.

“That was a tough conversation to have with my Mom, because I was giving up a full ride to start an education company, ” Clayton says. “It’s been a wild ride” ever since.

Today, Appleton has thriving company-owned stores in Madison, Huntsville and Nashville. In 2010, they tried franchising with locations in Atlanta and Houston.

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“We learned the franchises were not the right fit for us, ” Clayton says. “Our company-owned store locations were doing well, but the franchises were a mixed bag, so we pulled out of that.”

At the same time, the company started contracting with school districts for staffing support.

“What we realized is that while our roots are in tutoring, what we are really good at is staffing services, whether it’s for special education or substitute teachers, ” he says.  “We developed all our tools around recruiting and training those recruits for what they need to do.”

When Appleton began providing that support to school districts, the business “really exploded, because of the need for schools in the area of support personnel.”

In today’s budgetary environment, he says, school districts can’t afford to pay someone to focus specifically on support staff.

“So we quickly grew in that area and recognized what the market was telling us and that was instead of franchising, we are a school solutions company, ” Clayton says. “What we were doing every day had their core competencies in mind, and that service is more valuable to school districts than tutoring in the private sector.”

Appleton Learning founder Glenn Clayton says a hard lesson about franchising taught him to go a different direction.

That doesn’t mean the tutoring aspect isn’t important. It will remain a viable service in Madison, Huntsville and Nashville. But Clayton says the tutoring side represents 5 percent of the company’s revenue.

Where the company excels is in helping school districts find better personnel more efficiently.

“It’s a cost savings for school districts, and we are continuing to expand it today, ” Clayton says.”

“We’ve also ventured out with a digital evaluation app to help school districts perform digital evaluations of teachers with iPads, ” he says. “We’re planning to roll that out next year, and we have a lot of focus on that app at the moment.”

Another focus area is online video training for teachers and tutors through Appleton U.

“School districts no longer have the time nor money to send teachers away for a half-day of training, so we’ve developed various interactive video modules that are used for continuing education, ” Clayton says. “For example, if you are watching a 10-minute video about class management, a minute into it, there will be a question and answer phase. If you miss the question, it automatically goes back to the beginning.”

School districts spend more than 80 percent of their funds on human capital, Clayton says. “It’s our job to improve the overall quality and efficiency of that talent pool by helping train their staff to meet state goals, administrative goals, school goals and the teacher’s individual goals.”

By using the cloud and real-time analytics, Clayton says it’s easy to see how a school district is doing on a state level, district level, school level and classroom level.

“Being a school solutions company builds off our core competencies, ” Clayton says. “Our business is very different from when we first began. But we had to get good at it as we grew, finding and recruiting people as tutors and instructors, screening and training them in specific areas.”

Clayton says, for example, if someone wants to be an ACT tutor, even though he or she may be great in math and science, that doesn’t mean he or she knows how to be an ACT tutor. They have to be trained.

“That’s what we do, we train them. We give them the tools they need to be successful, and we still do that today — it’s just we’re doing it for a different customer base.”

Clayton says the biggest challenge for him has been coming to terms with changing focus from where the company began.

“At the beginning of 2013, we made the decision to turn the focus away from tutoring and the consumer side and focus on our school contracting business.

“This is what we do and how we’re going to grow.”

Making that decision, as tough as it was, he says, was the right thing, because it allows the company to broadly apply what it does well.

“We got out of franchising, shut it down because we were not doing a good job at it, ” he says. “Our tutoring centers are still at the top of the market, and our financial metrics are better than the industry, so we’re good there.”

Appleton has developed a curriculum for after-school and summer programs, as well as specialty modules to teach science and math.

“We teach computer programming, space science, applied engineering, a wide spectrum of topics, and we integrate technology-heavy activities into the learning process, ” Clayton says.

Nick Wilbourn, an Appleton education specialist, says forward-thinking educators recognize and embrace technology as an essential part of the modern educational landscape and are finding creative ways to teach their students technological literacy.

Two great examples of online software are Scratch, a program developed by MIT that teaches children the basics of computer programming, and Minecraft, a game in which players build, design and survive by creating modifications to digital worlds.

Letting students play and explore freely with such programs has educational value, he says. But Appleton has taken it a step farther and integrated the platforms into curriculum designed to teach technological literacy, as well as relevant skills, such as computer programming.

It creates a fun learning environment, and there have been several instances of students crying when their parents come to pick them up to take them home, says Kaki Morrow, marketing coordinator. “They don’t want to leave.”

Clayton says Appleton is focused on expanding throughout the Southeast.

“We want to be a school solutions provider to the Southeastern U.S., and we have a three- and five-year plan to grow in that area, and then we’ll re-evaluate.”

Wendy Reeves is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

text by Wendy Reeves

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