Longtime Sylvan Learning Veterans Talk Culture, Technology and Spider-Man Comic Books
Longtime Sylvan Learning Veterans Talk Culture, Technology and Spider-Man Comic Books

From advertising to programs to digital efforts, Karen Smith and Susan Valverde reflect on some major brand changes throughout the years.

2019 marks the 40th year in business for Sylvan Learning. The education brand has seen many changes throughout the years, but the mission has always been the same: to provide top-notch supplemental learning and enrichment to students.

Enter Susan Valverde, Chief Franchise Operations Officer, and Karen Smith, Senior Manager of Events and Operations Support. They’ve both held a variety of roles with the brand and show zero signs of slowing down.

Valverde, for one, is a former franchisee with the brand. She opened her Sylvan Learning center in 2002 and ran it for 15 years until she had the opportunity to sell her business in 2016 and join the Sylvan Learning corporate team. She first learned of Sylvan Learning when her husband needed to take a professional licensing exam.

“Back then, we offered testing services for adults,” Valverde said. “We got to know the franchisees there and saw how gratified they were and that was my first hook. I was in love, and it was one of the fastest decisions I’ve ever made. I knew it was what I wanted to do, and within a matter of weeks, we signed the franchise disclosure document and the license agreement. We moved as quickly as the team would let us.”

Meanwhile, in Irving, Texas, Smith started working at Sylvan Learning in 1988 when the position of a Director of Education opened up at a Sylvan Learning just down the street from where she lived. She decided to apply for a job and try it out for one year. If she didn’t like it, she’d simply go back to teaching.

She never went back. Smith ended up holding a variety of roles within the company before moving into her current position, including being a center director and working in accounting for the brand’s National Learning Centers. Today, she provides support for franchise operations, supporting franchise business consultants and helping plan regional meetings and conferences.  

“The thing that I loved about Sylvan Learning was the positive environment and getting to directly see the results of what you are doing,” Smith said. “I also enjoyed working with parents during my center days. The parents in the school where I taught were not that involved. And usually, in high school, a lot of times by that point, parents are just not that involved.”

Decades later, Valverde and Smith are excellent examples of how seriously Sylvan Learning takes its employee and franchisee relationships, according to CEO John McAuliffe.

“We work hard to attract and retain the best talent, and Susan and Karen’s longevity with the brand is proof of those efforts,” McAuliffe said. “They have a long and rich history with us and have been great sources of information and knowledge throughout the years.”

Digital steps

Ask Valverde and Smith about major changes the brand has gone through over the years, and technology is one major topic that comes to mind.

“When I started, everything was paper-based,” Smith said. “We would have to handwrite the schedules every day for the teachers, plus all of the conference materials. Our first big technology milestone was when we had the SMART system put in place. It was basically the first computer-based operation system that Sylvan had. That was a huge deal.”

Like Smith, Valverde has seen her fair share of technology changes within the Sylvan system, one of which was the switch to the brand’s proprietary program of today, SylvanSync.

“Digitizing our curriculum and converting to SylvanSync was a major evolution for a lot of reasons,” Valverde said. “Not only does it make us cutting edge, but it allows us to personalize and individualize programs in a way no one else can.”

Valverde noted that Sylvan Learning’s big initiative right now is replacing the backend operating system to make centers even more advanced.

“We have new technology systems rolling out that are going to help us bring the centers forward and push them into the new stage,” Valverde said.

A multitude of offerings

Sylvan Learning has experimented with a variety of programs and initiatives throughout the years. Smith noted that it was a huge deal when the brand went into national advertising in the 1990s. Also huge, she said, was the addition of SAT and ACT test preparation, as well as the brand’s adding other programs besides just the basic reading, math, writing and study skills.

Valverde was with the brand when it began to offer its Sylvan EDGE programs, which include STEM learning opportunities.

“That brought a new set of consumers and offerings to our centers,” Valverde said. “That was a big step and evolution in our brand.”

What’s especially “near and dear” to Valverde is the way Sylvan Learning has branched out into communities and schools to offer its services, thereby eliminating financial and geographical barriers to education that so many students face.

“The institutional piece is very important to me,” Valverde said. “We piloted having Sylvan tutors in schools when I was still a franchisee in 2005. It’s been a longstanding model. Essentially, all the things we do in our centers that moms and dads purchase, now school districts can do that for an entire classroom. We go to these schools and take everything from reading and writing to ACT and SAT prep to eliminate barriers of geography. To me, that was a game-changer, to have this full-service partnership with the community.”

Conference fun

While Smith has always enjoyed working with families and the fast-paced nature of the business, her favorite memories of Sylvan Learning involve attending the brand’s conferences.

“Conferences have always been wonderful,” Smith said. “What I most love about Sylvan Learning is that we just have such great people. Our annual conference is the one time of year we all get together in the community, and it’s so energizing to see everyone. It’s like a big family reunion.”

Valverde has also enjoyed the conferences and recalls the close-knit environment among franchisees. 

“The conferences are always so much fun. When I first attended, every state would compete for a spirit award and we just had a lot of camaraderie,” Valverde said. “In my days as a franchisee, the Texas franchise owners were a close knit group who helped each other, we held state level meetings and even enjoyed holiday parties together.”

A bit of nostalgia

Sylvan Learning has also evolved in terms of advertising, and both Valverde and Smith remember some real gems among the company’s history. Valverde noted how old Sylvan Learning television commercials have been played at conferences.

“Every time they play the music and you hear the message, it all evokes a lot of pride in what we do,” Valverde said. “You tear up when you watch some of those commercials about kids overcoming major obstacles and how we support their journey.”

There have also been celebrity moments. Smith remembers how the late 1980s sitcom “Head of the Class” actor Brian Robbins was the Sylvan Learning spokesman for one year and came to a special party at one of the Sylvan centers. Performer Sandy Duncan did radio commercials for the brand, and Marvel created a Sylvan Learning comic book called “The Amazing Spider-Man Battles Ignorance in the 1990s.”

“It was quite the big deal at the time,” Smith said of the comic book.  

Moving forward

The brand is still continuing to grow. In April, the company announced its plans to expand into China and open 200 locations there.

“In terms of major milestones, we’ve gone international and have been aggressively getting into other markets,” Valverde said. “I’d say that’s a huge milestone and step in the brand’s evolution. I’m pretty proud of it.”

Smith is especially excited about the brand’s international expansion.

“I am just looking forward to expanding the brand more and seeing us in more places,” Smith said. “I’m very excited about our recent deal with China. We’re adding a bunch of new centers there and I always love just seeing more kids learning at Sylvan. That’s where my heart is. I just think it’s such a great program.”

Exciting things are ahead for the brand, but providing supplemental and enrichment educational opportunities will always be front and center for Sylvan Learning.

“The things that I love about Sylvan are things that have not changed through the years,” Smith said. “We’ve always stood for quality education. I’ve always felt good about working for Sylvan, knowing we’re doing the best we can for the kids. The personalized instruction we’ve given over the years, from paper-based to iPads, it’s still the same idea and premise, and there have always been great people.”

McAuliffe echoes the sentiment: “While we’ve come a long way, we are still growing, and having team members such as Susan and Karen in place help continue the drive for expansion and growth.”