A Q&A with A Grade Ahead Co-Founders, Meenal and Parag Singhal
How have your personal experiences shaped your views on education?
Growing up in India played an important role in shaping our views on education. Education is absolutely imperative. In India, there is tremendous emphasis on education in families and society. It’s a very pragmatic viewpoint – a strong education leads to a high paying job, which results in a good lifestyle. Education and being highly qualified are the road to success. Math and English are at the core of a good educational foundation. Math fosters logic and reasoning and provides a launch pad for STEM. Language is, of course, critical for effective communication.
Meenal: My parents had encouraged me to go into education, but I chose to pursue information technology in college. In 1991, after my son was born, I quit my job as an IT specialist to be with him. I found spare time to start teaching the neighborhood kids in my home. It became very successful, but in 1994, we made the move to the U.S. It was an experience that really inspired me.
Why did you start A Grade Ahead?
We were in a highly ranked school district, but we felt our son was not getting enough math practice. In fact, he wasn’t getting any homework at all. At first, we began making up our own worksheets. Then, when we sought an after-school program to send him to, we found that most programs basically did drills and memorization. We didn’t find the kind of curriculum that offered word problems, based on real-world situations, or problem solving that would help him build his analytical abilities. We started MathWizard in 2001 to fill the void.
How have your views evolved as a result of A Grade Ahead?
We started from the premise that educational enrichment done the right way reinforces learning. It’s similar to recitation classes in college. You take a course in a large lecture hall with hundreds of students, but you also have recitation classes in smaller groups to reinforce concepts and principles. We see our role in the same way. We are a supplement to the school curriculum and the success that our students have had as a result of our programs continues to reinforce that viewpoint. We also realized that it’s important to make it fun and rewarding and we make sure to build that into the curriculum.
Since we started, cuts in funding have resulted in larger class sizes, which has led to less personal attention from teachers. A Grade Ahead provides that personal touch in a smaller classroom setting. Additionally, education in public schools is test-driven, for which we now dedicate an entire month to standardized test preparation. However, we also strive to reinforce learning the fundamentals, which are crucial building blocks for higher education.
How does the program remain relevant and innovative?
The most important business practice for us is listening to our teachers, parents, and franchisees and being open to continuous improvement and innovation. We have found that someone coming in fresh from the outside like a new franchisee or parent can be a great source of inspiration and ideas. We also do a great deal of research on trends in education and adopt the ones that we feel have merit.
How have A Grade Ahead’s teachers, parents, and students influenced the program?
We started with math because we believe that a solid foundation of math is absolutely essential for any career. In the beginning, our program focused on providing math drills, which are still at the core of math fluency, and word/story problems in math that many competitors lacked. Word problems develop “thinkers,” who are capable of applying their reasoning to real-life situations.
Later, at the request of our customers, our program evolved to include English and science. We have also aligned ourselves with common core standards to ensure subject matter relevance and introduced monthly quizzes and reviews of previously covered materials to reinforce concepts. We also now offer short educational camps that are made fun by including hands-on activitities.
Why do students need A Grade Ahead?
There is a tendency to think that you only go to an enrichment program if your child is falling behind. However, a lot of parents like us, feel that their child, who may be doing OK or even good in school, could do better with additional practice. Our programs provide that additional practice. Also, because of state and federal regulations, teachers are spending more and more time teaching for the standardized tests, which takes away from the time they have to teach concepts and reinforce those with exercises.
Today, there are also so many distractions with kids texting, using social media and playing music all while trying to study. Our program offers another way of getting their focus back. It’s a constructive and positive outlet for students that is intellectually stimulating and rewarding.
What are your greatest successes as a business leader?
Parents complimenting A Grade Ahead for its contribution to their child’s academic success is the most gratifying experience and has been the driving force from our inception. Parents tell us that our content is unique and the best they have found anywhere And they don’t just tell us! Eighty six percent of our referrals come from our parents. That alone gives us the reason to keep innovating. On a business front, the ability to franchise and see franchises owned by our own customers, is a hallmark of success. Other successes worth mentioning are the longevity of students in the learning centers and the fact that our program is preferred over many established programs in this space.