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VOL. 127 | NO. 223 | Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Aiken: The Study Brings Accountability to Tutoring

By Sarah Baker

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Entrepreneurs are by nature risk-takers, but it’s not everyday that you see a 24-year-old putting his livelihood on the line to pursue his calling.

The Study’s main area at 5179 Wheelis Drive, facing the Wall of Influential People.

(Photo Courtesy of James Aiken)

In mid-October, James Aiken launched a professional tutoring business called The Study in East Memphis at 5179 Wheelis Drive. The company offers private tutoring in one-on-one and group settings, standardized test preparation and education consulting.

“The indefinable part of being a good tutor relies on two big things,” Aiken said. “How well do you know the subject material, but more importantly, what you’ve learned about the student and the way they learn, the way they visualize or hear things based on your previous interactions with them.”

Aiken is a Memphis University School alum and son of Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors LLC chief operating officer and executive vice president Wyatt Aiken. After receiving his bachelor’s degree at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., he helped run a specialized tutoring company for a young couple in the San Francisco Bay area for 13 months.

He said he’s glad to be back in his hometown, building on his passion for education and filling a local niche. The classes are scheduled by the hour and are followed up with daily and weekly progress reports to families.

“I think that the majority of students in Memphis who are getting tutored are getting tutored by an individual who has realized that they can make a little bit of money on the side teaching something that they think they know well,” Aiken said. “For whatever reason, because of the way word of mouth and the parent community in the schools works, those tutors continue to get referrals. But often, I hear a lot of horror stories about the lack of accountability there.”

One way The Study strives to achieve that accountability is by only hiring full-time educators. Aside from Aiken is associate director Elizabeth Womack, a native Memphian, graduate of St. Mary’s Episcopal School and the University of Mississippi.

It’s a method that allows for more personalized relationships with each student, while creating job opportunities for young professionals to “take full control and direct it as a team, rather than a top down sort of thing.”

“The ease of dialogue, the ability to quickly relate to a student, and knowing the right questions to ask at the right moment to lead the student to learn the stuff themselves instead of just standing in front of them and saying, ‘This is how you do this’ makes a huge difference,” Aiken said. “When somebody does that 40 hours a week as opposed to 15 hours a week, they get that tutoring skill, that separate thing that’s hard to put your finger on, down really well.”

Also setting The Study’s business model apart from other tutoring companies is its 1,800-square-foot space, which Aiken describes as “Starbucks smashed together with a library smashed together with an Apple store.” Divided between two levels, he laid it out that way with the intention of fostering an open, yet connected collaborative learning environment.

“It takes a little bit of the pressure off of our tutors and lets us lead by example in the style of learning that I believe is most effective,” Aiken said. “If a students asks a difficult question about calculus, physics or AP biology, one tutor can turn to another and say, ‘Hey James, will you remind me how the sodium potassium channels work in muscle action?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I do remember that actually.’ That way, the student gets to see it’s OK to ask questions.”

The eclectic space, designed by Mark Denton of Denton Architecture and built out by Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc., includes refurbished portals for blackboards, cozy study sections of desks and rugs and a Wall of Influential People.

“I noticed that a lot of the tutoring companies in Memphis, their décor was geared toward much younger students and that kept high schoolers and middle schoolers from wanting to tell any of their friends that they were going to receive outside help,” Aiken said. “We created a space where high schoolers will walk in and say, ‘Wow, this is really freaking cool. We like being here.’”

The Study currently has 17 students and can handle about 40 at capacity. Aiken hopes for three to four full-time educators by the end of the year and up to six by the end of 2013. He also aspires to establish a nonprofit to help bridge the disparity of students who can’t afford high-end tutoring services called The Study Memphis Foundation.

The biggest challenge with being a young professional and starting a business, Aiken said, is lack of credit history and credibility. Then there’s finding the balance between offering “strictly defined guarantees” for tutoring services because of how much relies on the student and outside variables, such as the correlation between poor performance on a standardized test and lack of sleep the night before.

But it’s his drive and fervor for service that guide him through the hiccups – a lesson he learned from watching his father’s day-to-day interactions in the commercial real estate business.

“The importance of personal relationships, kindness and accountability in the service that we offer is never forgetting the fact that we’re trying to offer something of value to individuals and individual families,” Aiken said. “What goes along with that is not an impersonal name, a logo or a brand, but actually standing up, shaking their hand, smiling, and developing that relationship.”

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