When Victoria Newman began Greenwich Education Group 14 years ago, she saw a niche in the regional educational market that needed to be filled. However, other niches began to pop up along the way and what started as a one-room business focused on tutoring grew into four separate entities dedicated to helping approximately 1,000 children who often require extra-special help in reaching their full educational potential. In 2016, Newman was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration as the Connecticut Small Business Person of the Year.
In this edition of Suite Talk, Business Journal reporter Phil Hall talks with Newman about her unlikely rise to award-winning business owner.
When and why did Greenwich Education Group begin?
“It began in 2004, addressing a need in the community. There was no tutoring, test prep or educational consulting. It started in a one-room schoolhouse on car dealership row in Byram.”
Were you always entrepreneurially focused?
“Great question. I was a teacher from 1990 and worked five years in Stamford and five years in Greenwich. We moved to Singapore for my husband’s job in banking and I was bored — I really needed to do something. I worked for a company called Asian Welcome and I started to help expats who relocated to Singapore. I toured all of the schools and loved school placement.
When I came back here, I worked part time at GMAC, which did a lot of the GE relocations in Stamford and helped kids with school placement. I then worked at Jewish Community Center in Stamford, running birth-through-five while I had two very small children. I was still tutoring, going to different kids’ houses, and I decided that I wanted to try to open up a tutoring center. I didn’t know if we could afford the rent.”
So, let’s hit the fast-forward button. Greenwich Education Group now has three different schools and a learning center based in Stamford. Please tell us what they are all about.
“The Spire School is grades 6 through12 with a focus on health and wellness, anxiety, school avoidance and depression. The students are college-ready kids who are very, very bright but have some social or emotional piece that we need to work on. They have life coaches to support that, an incredible education director — our head of school rocks. It’s just a great team. Any student that comes there has to want to be there.
The Pinnacle School is for kids on the autism spectrum and covers grades 2 through 12. This includes kids with ADHD and nonverbal learning disorder, and it offers more of a focus on social cognition and executive functioning skills. The kids are just incredible. The best part of my day is when I go over to Pinnacle and hang out with the kids and play games and puzzles and interact.
Links Academy works with kids one on one, to finish out their school year with total flexible learning. We may have a kid who had to withdraw from their public or private school for whatever reason. We’ve also had tennis players and lacrosse players who have flexible schedules because they are training at a much higher level. We’ve had the lead of Cirque du Soleil on Broadway — kids who, for whatever reason, had some sort of an interruption or need more focus on their learning.
And we have The Collaborative Center for Learning and Development. It is not a specialist school yet, but we’re looking into making it one. They take on a much more severe population, with neuropsychological tests on speech and language. Four kids go to school there full time.”
How does your approach to special education compare with what is being doing in the local public and private schools?
“I think our public schools do a decent job and our private schools also do a decent job. But there are kids who need more than what a typical public or private school can provide. It is because they have more needs to be utilized. Our public schools do a really good job with special education, but maybe some times that student really isn’t a great fit.
Our education is very individualized. For example, over at Pinnacle there is coding and robotics — the kids can hack into my system. There is also a sensory occupational therapy gym.”
How do you determine the tuition for your schools?
“Tuition is determined by the heads of school and their teams. It depends what is needed. A kid may come into Pinnacle and need some added-on services. They may need extra social cognition, extra occupational therapy. A kid at Spire may need extra social functioning coaching.
We pay a lot of rent and we pay our teachers — we have special ed teachers, clinical social workers, psychologists, what every special ed school needs. Our tuition has not been an issue and we are also a lot less expensive if you were to do some of the other options out there.”
With summer upon us, I should ask if your schools are year-round.
“Pinnacle has an extended-year program and so does Spire. Links Academy is doing a lot of for-credit course work, so we have kids taking a math class over the summer so they can do a jump in their math from where they would normally be placed. We have kids coming for coding, robotics, getting a head start on their curriculum for the fall. We’ve got 25 kids, so that’s been pretty busy.”
Links Academy recently hosted a free public health event called “Migraines in Adolescents — It’s Not All in Your Head.” What was that about?
“We decided to have it because a lot of our students at Links Academy in the one-on-one learning program were getting migraines and they needed a more flexible schedule. We see an increase in students with migraines — really debilitating migraines. Since everything we do responds to the needs of our local community, we got a doctor at the migraine center at Mount Sinai — a top-grade doctor, Lauren Natbony. We thought it would be a wonderful event to partner with the YWCA, the Greenwich PTA Council, Children’s Medical Group and Moffly Media. We had about 50 parents learn incredible amount. For instance, I didn’t know that migraines were as prevalent in boys than they are in girls. I didn’t realize that kids were having migraines as young as four.”
What are your near-term goals for your schools?
“We have a wait list for our schools. I would like to methodically grow those schools. We’ve never grown those schools enormously big because we’ve been cognizant of doing this right. By 2020, I would like to have one campus. Right now, I am on roller skates because I spend a lot of time between the schools. There is a lot of office space in Stamford and there are a number of options of where we could be. We love Stamford — our schools are located there.”
Looking back on your entrepreneurial adventure, what do you see as your most significant accomplishments?
“Being able to make a difference and enable every child to recognize their potential. And doing that with honor in the best possible way. We’ve always done what’s in the best interests of the children and their families. We’ve never run it saying this has to be our bottom line.
I was at a Pinnacle picnic and I got hugs all around. Parents came up and said, ‘Your school has made such a difference in the life of my child — thank God for you.’ I always say ‘#Grateful’ because I have the best friends, family, colleagues — and I am just lucky.”