Technology sparks expansion for owner of Bellingham Sylvan Learning Center

Kathleen Casprowitz already owns 17 Sylvan Learning Centers, including one in Bellingham that opened in 1994.

But by the end of the year, she wants her business to nearly double in size.

Most of the new centers Casprowitz will open, including five in and around Whatcom County, will look different from the more than 800 Sylvan locations around the globe, which provide extra-curricular tutoring to grade-school students.

Instead of brick-and-mortar centers, her new franchises will be mobile, enabling tutors to set up just about anywhere, including community centers and elementary schools. While Sylvan students have traditionally spent time working out of lesson books, in the new mobile locations, many will instead be seen clicking and tapping on iPads.

Casprowitz is one of Sylan’s franchisees throwing full force behind the company’s new digital platform, called SylvanSync. The new technology provides a Web-based curriculum and new tools for instructors to gauge their students’ educational needs and progress.

It also allows franchise owners to expand without the need to build or lease additional physical space.

“I don’t think we could be expanding if we hadn’t gone digital,” Casprowitz said.

Her build-out will be quick. Casprowitz wants to soon have mobile centers operating in Blaine, Lynden, Sedro-Woolley, Anacortes and Langley, British Columbia.

The franchise owner is based in Surrey, B.C., and began growing her company after opening its first center in north Vancouver in 1987. She expanded into Bellingham shortly after.

Today, Casprowitz’s franchise spans the West Coast, with several locations in Arizona along with others in the Northwest.

Sylvan’s multi-million dollar digital makeover is seen by the company as a way to modernize itself in one fell swoop, making its centers more attractive to parents of students in need of tutoring while offering new opportunities to franchisees, said Nick Kouwenhoven, vice president of communications and support for the Baltimore, Md.-based firm.

Going digital also capitalizes on a growing convergence of technology and education.

“Students today spend a great deal more time with technology and tablets than they ever have,” Kouwenhoven said.

Privately run tutoring centers have found a niche inside the education franchising industry, which is estimated to generate about $40 billion in annual revenue, according to Franchise Help, an online resource for prospective franchise owners.

Casprowitz said during any given month, her centers provide services to nearly 25,000 students. She also employs about 50 people, including center managers and part-time, professional teachers who work as tutors.

Tanya Rowe, Bellingham Public Schools’ executive director of communications and community relations, said she didn’t know enough about private tutoring centers to comment on where they fit within the world of public education. But she said students in Bellingham schools are utilizing extra-curricular services like those offered at Sylvan.

“I know that many of our families access these and other services and find them helpful,” Rowe said.

Kouwenhoven said Sylvan puts significant effort into training and supporting its franchisees. An owner is able to purchase rights to open Sylvan centers in a specific territory, or within multiple territories.

New franchisees need $75,000 in start-up cash, and Sylvan suggests interested owners should expect an initial investment of between $180,000 and $300,000, depending on location.

Franchise fees range from about $42,000 to $48,000, also depending on location.

Kouwenhoven said by law the company cannot comment on how lucrative a franchise operation can be.

An ideal candidate for franchise owner, he said, would be someone with a dual interest in education and private business ownership.

“Effectively, we’re looking at people who have a passion for education and a passion for business, sort of a combination,” he said.

It was within that merger that Casprowitz found her calling, she said. Her centers cater to all students, but she said the tutoring services are of particular help to those who have fallen behind the learning and comprehension level of their classmates.

Casprowitz said she won’t “pull punches” when it comes to assessing the current state of American education, which she described at being in a crisis state and lagging behind other developed nations.

With new technology, professionally trained teachers and the ability to expand the reach of her tutoring centers, Casprowitz is excited for the future of her business, which she believes is a vital component in the education of thousands of students.

“I think Sylvan has done groundbreaking curriculum development,” she said. “Even after 25-plus years, I can still get tears in my eyes about some of the kids we work with.”

Contact Evan Marczynski at or call 360-647-8805.

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