At Sylvan Learning Center, it’s “all about having fun,” according to local franchise owner Randy Way.
And Way and his staff had a lot of fun when Sylvan was named the Small Business of the Year at the Mid-Columbia Small Business of the Year awards May 3.
More than 300 people attended the annual event, which was held at the Shilo Inn in Richland.
Tri-Cities Digestive Health Center in Kennewick, owned by Dr. Somprak Boonpongmanee, earned the silver award at the banquet and Pediatrics for You in Kennewick, owned by Dr. Shatki Matta, was presented with the bronze award.
Sylvan Learning Center was first established in the Tri-Cities in 1999 and it was purchased by Way in 2005.
“I was a teacher in Umatilla, Ore., and I was looking for a business opportunity,” said Way. “This seemed like a great fit for me.”
Way said when he purchased the business it was being run under a very profit-oriented way, with decisions being made by how they penciled out in the accounting ledger.
“I had a very different philosophy,” he said. “A happier staff gives better service — and the better service the students receive, the better they do.”
Way has a staff of about 19 employees, about 14 of which are part-time teachers who also work in area schools.
“Some are very part-time,” Way emphasized.
Some employees may only work a couple of hours a week, but offering that flexibility allows Way to keep a steady supply of quality, certified teachers on hand.
Sylvan offers educational help in all subjects for all ages, from 4 ½ years to adults.
Way said the company doesn’t consider what they do as “tutoring,” but rather as supplemental education.
“Tutoring is something that is done long-term,” Way explained.
Sylvan’s educators work with students on the root problems, so the students can move forward on their own without additional help.
“We get to the root cause and build on those skills,” he said. “Our program goal is to not get kids back.”
The center, at 8903 W. Gage Blvd., Suite D in Kennewick also offers SAT preparatory classes and helps with study skills, he said.
This is the third year the business has been nominated by the Boys and Girls Club of Benton and Franklin Counties.
“The first year we didn’t even earn a site visit,” Way said.
But last year, Sylvan Learning Center was the recipient of the Bronze award.
“After we submitted our packet, we recognized all the stuff that we should have put into it,” said Way.
This year, he wanted to find a way to show judges the “heart” of his business — that it is about more than helping a student pass an exam. He needed to help judges understand that the help provided by Sylvan teachers truly make a difference in the students’ lives.
“So I grabbed a video camera and I went to visit some of our clients,” said Way, who didn’t tell his staff about his plan.
His wife spent hours editing the video visits into a short, comprehensive presentation that featured students and their families.
“These are parents saying ‘thank you’ to the teachers — I had one father in tears,” he said. “And it showed that we are making a huge impact in these kids’ lives.”
That’s gratifying for the teachers, who too often have so many students in their classrooms that it’s difficult to know if they are making a difference.
That’s why many of Way’s part-time staff, which is made up mostly of full-time teachers, enjoy the job so much, said Sarah Meek, Sylvan’s director of education.
“Here it is so individualized,” Meek said. “You can pinpoint the problems and really work at the root of it. So you get tons of those ‘light-bulb’ moments, when you see that the students get it. And that’s really rewarding.”
Another plus for the teachers: no lesson plans.
“The lesson plans are done for them,” Meek said. “(The teachers) really appreciate that.”
The company tries to make it as easy as possible for its teachers, who often have already worked an eight-hour day before arriving at the center.
Each student’s books and learning supplies are gathered and ready at their table before the teacher gets there and management staff is onsite every hour of operation to support the teachers.
In addition, Sylvan employs a full-time instruction aide to help teachers during the lessons.
Way said the Kennewick Sylvan Learning Center is overstaffed compared to “franchise” models and other centers, allowing the center to give “top-notch customer service and minimize employee burnout.”
In addition, Sylvan directors are paid an hourly wage with overtime, as opposed to a salary with an expectation of working 50 hours or more a week.
The company’s full-time staff receives 100 percent employer-funded medical and dental insurance, anniversary bonuses for staff longevity, paid sick, vacation and personal days, and regular pay increases. Directors received periodic bonuses for going above and beyond expectations.
Teachers and aides receive gift cards, tokens and bonus hours for working odd hours.
To promote volunteerism among the staff, the center has a drawing each quarter for a $100 restaurant gift certificate. Employee entries into the drawing are based on recorded hours volunteered within the community.
Sylvan Learning Cener is at 8903 W. Gage Blvd., Suite D in Kennewick. The phone number is 736-1509 and the website is www.educate.com.