How Do You Spell R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y?

 

mr-ed-2
Studies Weekly is connecting with grade-school kids across America by making education fun—and teaching them accountability. The company has had to learn a few of those same lessons.

Back in September 2002, a grade school reader, Michigan Studies Weekly, reported the extraordinary phenomenon of whale sightings in Lake Michigan. Humpbacks had supposedly ended up there after migrating from the Atlantic Ocean, traveling down the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes to breach their young. It was a fabulous story—which turned out to be all fable. And it became breaking news on CNN.

“I had upper-level faculty from Harvard, Yale, Purdue, and several other universities all saying how horrible it was that we were subjecting kids to terrible content,” recalls Ed Rickers, CEO of Studies Weekly Publications in Orem, still wincing after 14 years. “I thought we were going to go out of business.” Immediately he printed a retraction, explaining how the writer of the piece had been duped by a couple of fake websites. “We learned something with this experience, and we want to pass along these golden nuggets of wisdom on to you, our student readers,” the retraction read, explaining the importance of researching reliable sites. It also added, “We take full responsibility for our mistake and have taken extra measures to be more careful when preparing current events in the future.”

Rickers took the rap—but also took consolation in a letter from a kid in Hearns, Texas that arrived a few days after the kerfuffle. “Dear Texas Studies Weekly,” the girl wrote, “I love to read and do things in the newspaper…It helps me to learn and just want to thank you for making it and I want to thank my teacher for getting it for me…” Rickers still has the letter framed on the wall of his Orem, Utah office. He also keeps in touch with the author, who is now a nurse in that same Texas town.

Those two unrelated but nearly simultaneous events pretty much sum up what Studies Weekly is about: connecting with kids by making learning exciting—and teaching responsibility. Since that brouhaha its K-6th grade publications in social studies and science have grown to reach 3.5 million students, roughly 12% of all those in the United States, across all 50 states, as well as in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Jamaica.

But the education company’s mission hasn’t changed a whit. “We produce material that promotes critical thinking so that students can think about our country and their place in history and society,” says Rickers, AGE. “Knowing their rights helps them become responsible citizens.”

Over the course of 18 years at Studies Weekly, Rickers has had to learn a little responsibility himself.

The company was founded in 1985 by Rickers’ father-in-law, Paul David Thompson, a graphic artist, amateur ventriloquist, and fifth-grade teacher. When asked to teach fourth-grade history—Utah history—he quickly discovered there wasn’t much material on-hand and there had never been a textbook devoted to the subject. Inspired by Weekly Reader (1928-2012), he decided to create a version for his own state. “He printed up Utah Studies Weekly almost as a weekend hobby,” Rickers recalls. Retiring as a teacher in 1997, Thompson pushed his project to Texas, where two of his sisters lived. In its first year, Texas Studies Weekly outstripped Utah’s revenue tenfold. “That caught everyone’s attention,” says Rickers.

Including Rickers’. He’d socked away savings from a small retail business focused on education, and in 1998 decided to jump in—with both feet and a fistful of plastic. “At one point, I had 21 credit cards maxed out, $450,000 in debt,” he recalls, citing the easy terms then when you could transfer balances and pay no interest for 12 months. He could expand the company and advertise heavily during the spring and summer, then get paid by schools in the fall. “Eventually that wasn’t viable,” he says. “But I had to keep going—or go bankrupt. So we always kept going.”

Through recessions and recoveries, he pushed Studies Weekly from state to state, getting his first line of credit ($350,000) in 2006. So long credit-card conjuring. But Rickers didn’t hire a fulltime CFO for another seven years.

Meantime, there was family drama to contend with. Other relatives had also noticed the success of Studies Weekly and had invested in it. Rickers found himself one of six independently owned businesses, the largest of the group. Consolidating them in 2002, Rickers became president, but still had to deal with a half-dozen, sometimes competing, views of how to run things. “With the recession in 2003, revenue went down, and people panicked,” he recalls. That strained the close group to a near-snapping point. Rickers was eventually asked to buy out each shareholder, a process that finally ended in 2008.

Rickers by then had a small army of former teachers and graphic designers working for him. They produced and edited content that was rich in storytelling, designed in each state to meet curriculum standards, but always focused on making education entertaining for children. “Kids have a hard time connecting with historical figures,” explains Kathy Hoover, chief curriculum officer, who spent two decades teaching music, then fourth grade, before joining Studies Weekly fulltime in 2005. “You can write about the Declaration of Independence and just give the facts, as most textbooks do. Or you can bring that history to life, explaining how hard it was to separate from England and how angry people were in 1776 about taxes and representative government. Kids can understand that.”

She makes the same point about science. “Kids love to ask questions: Why is the sky blue, the grass green? Why do I see the sun in the east first thing in the morning? What’s inside an ant or an alligator?” Playing to their curiosity is the way to hook children into learning, says Rickers. “We try to engage students on an emotional basis so we can reach the mind.”

While trying to knock down big sales—via state textbook adoptions of Studies Weekly—Rickers was also enriching the quality of his offerings. In print, art director Kris Gillespie produced imaginative illustrations drawn from primary sources; product manager Dave Hall created knockout student editions. Online, Loki Mulholland, a veteran documentary filmmaker, created a series of 3,000-plus videos, including interviews with war veterans and survivors of the Holocaust and Japanese Internment Camps, as well as successful immigrants, and many others. “We’re connecting kids to real people,” says Rickers. And it’s working both ways. “When we tell these subjects we’re interviewing them on behalf of kids, they really open up, and often tell us things they haven’t shared before.” Example: Col. Jack Tueller, who describes an affecting story of being on the beaches during the Normandy Invasion in 1944 and encountering a young enemy sniper, then reconnecting with him days later when the German became a POW.

StudiesWeekly.com has undergone rapid expansion under Troy Biggers, the director of technology. In addition to all those videos made in-house, “We have a vast library of primary source material now available online,” he says. “Our team brings together materials from public domain resources—the best available—and correlates it to state standards.” Kids who are struggling with reading can also get help through an audio link to text that highlights words as they’re being read aloud. Playing games, like Studies Weekly Explorers, kids can follow an avatar exploring historic sites, then answer questions and solve puzzles, advancing to a new level. “It’s like a treasure hunt of learning,” Biggers says.

Technology has spawned other improvements, including real-time, standardized testing of students while they’re learning through various tracking methods. “We used to pull children out of class during a designated day—very disruptive,” says Biggers. “Not anymore.” In a nascent but growing effort, Studies Weekly’s predictive analytics will help teachers get a sturdier handle on how students in the third grade now, say, will likely perform once they reach sixth grade.

Internally, Studies Weekly has also taken a big technology leap forward. The company is moving toward design-driven development, bringing on board a user experience team that constantly tests designs, interface, and ease of use with teachers and students—then sends those results to product developers. “That’s better than engineers’ taking their best guess at user-interactive experience,” Biggers explains. On top of that are new systems for customers service, warehouse management, and enterprise resource planning.

Still, his proudest achievement, Biggers says, is introducing the idea of project management to the tech department. “Before I came on nearly two years ago, it was very chaotic, which was why they couldn’t scale,” he observes. “I’m very big on keeping things very organized and having a lot of accountability, road maps, deadlines and structure. That’s allowed us to grow and produce things at a more rapid pace.”

One ambitious venture is the Many Hands Make a Lot of Work project, overseen by chief curriculum officer Hoover. With national products in all 50 states, some are out of date. Moreover there’s currently little uniformity in quality and number of weekly units. “We want to standardize publications at every grade level,” she explains. The idea is to rely on an even larger network of teachers across the country. “It’s essentially a crowdsourcing effort, except that it relies solely on our own classroom subscribers,” says tech leader Biggers. “We’re building internal systems and a series of evaluators so the work can flow quickly.” How quickly? “We have 50 publications we want to significantly enhance before August, if possible.”

Biggers isn’t the only change agent at Studies Weekly. In the job as executive vice president for just half a year, Frantz Belot, Ph.D., is stamping his style of discipline and organization across the sales and marketing divisions he oversees. “I take chaos and create high-performing teams,” he says, citing similar work he did at Imagine Learning, the Provo, Utah provider of language and literacy software.

Belot started by knocking down cubicles and partitions at Studies Weekly, putting in new furniture and opening up spaces to create more light and interchange between executives and employees. He brought teams serving schools and school districts under the same roof, and separated more distinctly the functions of groups supporting pre- and post-sale operations. Within three weeks, he hired 13 salespeople, and insisted they move from Utah into different states to be closer to their customers. And he radically revamped the compensation system. Instead of sharing equally a pot with a designated amount, he created incentives that rewarded hard work and success.

Pushing so many changes in so little time sparked friction. “All of a sudden you have a guy—Holy Cow!—who has demands, expectations,” recalls Belot, who says he plays bad cop to Rickers’ good cop. The criticism and pushback has settled down as employees see the results of that accountability. A recently hosted expo for district superintendents from around the country, for example, was put together hastily, but drew the right crowds and got terrific reviews from the outside.

Belot is pushing for a minimum of 20% annual growth. Studies Weekly, he reckons, should bring in $27 million or so in revenue this year, without any new state adoptions. Those big sales are his targets. The challenge is convincing state school boards that the print and online content of Studies Weekly covers the same education standards as textbooks—and are better because they can be updated more rapidly and sell for less. Its brand-spanking tagline: “America’s New Textbook.”

“There’s already a different vibe, a different energy level here,” Belot says. “That’s how you increase capacity and the financial viability of the company. All this without having to yell, swear, or threaten—just holding people accountable.”

Accountability cuts across all Studies Weekly content, and Rickers’ ancillary projects, as well. In 2004, he launched Every Kid Votes to engage kids in the electoral process, first in a 10-state area. This electrified a musty idea—Weekly Reader had kids conduct presidential polls from 1956-2008. Let students research  the contenders and “vote” in mock elections, in addition to forecasting the winner. “It’s important for kids to understand what candidates stand for and use that power to cast a ballot.” Rickers is hoping for a big turnout this year—at least 4 million or 5 million kids, up from about a half-million a dozen years ago. (Little-known fact: Those students correctly predicted the presidential winners in 2004, 2008, and 2012.)

This year, Rickers is also hoping to engage Studies Weekly kids in a closely aligned project: the Responsibility Foundation. Launched by sculptor Gary Lee Price, the organization intends to provide scholarships and education about preserving freedoms at the root of American life. The foundation picks up from work of the late Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, and his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning—and seeks to conceptualize its mission in a 300-foot tall statue of two clasping hands, designed by Price, to be erected somewhere on the West Coast. In tandem with the foundation, Rickers is encouraging students, PTAs, and scout groups across the country to help raise money for the sculpture.

“This will help teach kids the responsibility that freedom requires,” he says. “And how important it is to maintain it.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: