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Franchisee Leisha Baker has appointed Katy St. Clair, left, and Deb Hamilton, right, to new roles to scale the company’s growth.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
Franchisee Leisha Baker has appointed Katy St. Clair, left, and Deb Hamilton, right, to new roles to scale the company’s growth.

Business Spotlight: Crash Course

A new niche in college prep tutoring takes the lead at Club Z, and its operators scale to manage growth

Posted online

The media headlines say it all: “The Absurdity of College Admissions,” “It was the hardest year on record to get into elite colleges” and “Teens under stress in top college competition.”

The plight of modern students has been documented by The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Amid the pressure, Club Z! In-home Tutoring Services has positioned itself as a release valve.

“The competitive nature of the universities really plays into our business model,” says Kevin Baker, who co-owns the business with his wife Leisha. “The students are getting higher scores, which translates sometimes into lower tuition, the college of choice or some scholarship money.”

The way it usually plays out is that average or above students want to stretch their test scores to gain acceptance into colleges of choice. They’ll call on Club Z for tutoring work. That college testing prep is its fastest growing segment, the owners say, and it now represents 30 percent of business.

It’s an unexpected shift.

“When we opened our business, we were somewhat afraid of the ACT,” Kevin says. “We didn’t offer it as a regular program.”

That was seven years ago. As a franchise of the Tampa, Florida-based Club Z corporation, the Bakers launched out in 2011 after making the standard nearly $30,000 startup investment.

Kevin had worked in marketing and business development, and Leisha was a fifth-grade teacher at Disney Elementary. With 15 tutors on board at the time, they set out to increase knowledge and academic confidence one student at a time.

They’ve since tutored 800 people – and actively work with about 100 students each month. To keep pace, they now have 46 tutors/academic coaches working part-time.

Based out of their Republic home, the Bakers tried to manage the growth, but there came a time to scale the business.

“Two people could not possibly keep up with everything,” Leisha says of the business revenue growth of about 30 percent annual the last few years. “We’re starting to change our processes. Initially, everything was really paper and pencil.”

Record-keeping turned electronic and social media became a regular communication tool, including posts of video testimonials by tutors and clients.

A big step recently was moving Leisha to a more central leadership role as area director and Kevin stepping back to handle the financial aspects.

“She’s the front of the business right now. I’m acting as the CEO,” Kevin says.

They also added another salary to the mix. Katy St. Clair was hired last month as assistant director, bringing her experience as hospitality director at Hickory Hills Country Club as well as work in the nonprofit sector.

Additionally, Deb Hamilton, a tutor on board since 2016, fully transitioned to an educational specialist role – kind of a help and liaison between tutors and students. Hamilton’s career covers marketing consulting work for companies, including Silver Dollar City, and as an elementary teacher.

College competition
The average composite ACT score by the graduating class of 2017 was 21, according to ACT Inc. The prior year had dropped to 20.8 – against the highest possible score of 36. It was a five-year low for the college entrance exam, and educators attributed the decrease to more high school seniors taking the test.

Jake Wannenmacher took the test as a junior. He had a goal to get accepted into Missouri University of Science and Technology’s engineering program, says his mother, Carlye Wannenmacher.

“Jake had taken the test a couple of times and felt like he didn’t perform as well as he could,” she says.

The pressure to qualify was upon him, as it is with many college prospects.

“He had a goal to get to Rolla and needed to get a certain score,” Wannenmacher adds, noting Jake’s math and science scores were strong, but he had difficulty with English under the timed test. “He struggled from a time perspective, time management.”

The acceptance rate at Missouri S&T is 84 percent, according to The Princeton Review’s annual rankings, with an ACT score range of 25-31.

In spring 2016, Wannenmacher reached out to Club Z, and she says the Bakers assessed Jake and connected him with a Missouri State University student for tutoring. Jake did about six weeks of tutoring on campus before retaking the ACT.

“It improved Jake’s score by six points,” Wannenmacher says. “We felt Jake had it in him, he just needed practice and to not get hung up on things.”

Those points translated into acceptance into the school and thousands of dollars in savings, she says. Jake plans to begin studying engineering in the fall.

“He’s earning $4,000 in scholarships a year,” Wannenmacher says, noting the tutoring work probably cost $900. “It’s a minimal investment when you look at the big investment of college.”

The Bakers say the cost for tutoring is $37-$48 per hour. Their tutors will create customized plans for students in pre-K and older, and that may include a specific subject.

“We want to make sure what we do translates into the classroom and their success there,” Leisha says.

Tutor time
To date, the Bakers estimate Club Z has paid over $600,000 to contracted tutors.

They require at least an associate degree and say 9 out of 10 have earned their bachelor’s. Many already are teachers, or have retired from the profession, and a lot are graduate students.

The majority of tutors are fully employed and work with Club Z for supplemental income.

Devon Wright is MSU’s assistant director of student engagement for transfer students. She picked up Club Z tutoring work in mid-2016 and takes on one or two students at a time to maintain work-life balance.

Wright says she earns about $200 per month for each student tutored.

“It only adds an hour and half to my day,” she says, noting the work usually is after 5 p.m. and on campus. “It is pretty flexible.”

She often sees young people interested in nursing or engineering degrees. According to Club Z’s internal reports on tutors, Wright’s students improve their composite scores by four points on average on the standardized tests.

“This one test is the door to their future, and if they can’t get a certain score they have to reroute,” she says. “It’s nice that we can help them get there.”

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