By Berber Jin
Tucked away behind the bustling intersection of Hamilton Avenue and Cowper Street is Palo Alto’s newest tutoring center, Best in Class, which celebrated its grand opening this past Saturday.
Freshly plastered orange walls and clean white tables await what founder Shan Zhao hopes will be many eager students hoping to get a leg up in school. At one corner of the room stands a glass display filled with prizes — the finest of which include an Amazon Echo Dot and Kindle Fire — which are awarded to students who complete their assignments.
Though part of a franchise with locations across the country, Zhao hopes to differentiate her location by hiring Stanford students and focusing on students for whom English is a second language.
“If you provide good services, if you satisfy parents, and if you provide good value and students see the result, you will grow,” she told The Daily. “Competition is not a bad thing, it is a positive thing.”
Born and educated in China, she got her bachelor’s in Information Management, completed an MBA in International Marketing and spent over ten years in Canada working as director of operations for a private company.
However, when her husband’s job led their family to move to the U.S. two years ago, Zhao initially found herself unable to work due to restrictions on her visa status. Turning her attention to supporting her son, who was entering first grade in the Sunnyvale School District, Zhao found herself more and more invested in education. In her first year in Sunnyvale, Zhao volunteered at Barly Elementary PTA and was treasurer of Sunnyvale’s Parent Teacher Association.
“My passion for education came first from teaching my son,” she said. “And then volunteering at school. It’s rewarding when you read for students in class and then see those same students passing by later and recognizing your face to say hello. The kids trust you and you see their progress, and that’s extremely rewarding.”
While Zhao worked in Sunnyvale, she said, she noticed a lack of support for English learners (ELs), students who often come from non-English speaking backgrounds and thus are not able to effectively learn English.
“Seeing how schools run here, I see that a lot of kids [still] need help, especially English learner students coming from out of the country,” Zhao said. “Teachers often don’t know how to teach English learner students, and I don’t think schools have enough resources to help EL students get out of [EL status].”
Zhao saw a opening in the tutoring market for English learners, and though her Best in Class center is open to any student from kindergarten through 12th grade, its focus is on providing opportunities for younger kids, especially English learners. In the Center’s first few days, all web sign-ups have been for students in the third grade or lower.
“I think that it’s one of the niche markets that has been ignored and not paid attention to,” Zhao said. “And parents are really looking for good tutors to help them out.”
Another distinguishing factor of Zhao’s center is its structured course material, which is proprietary to the Best in Class franchise. The center’s first tutor, Peter Liang, who recently completed graduate school at Georgetown, praised the curriculum’s clear deliverables and ability to break down complicated concepts.
“I like the fact that [Best in Class] has their own materials … It was able to break down very complex ideas into interactive exercises that are understandable to kids of their age,” he said. “What the educational material did was help convey the idea through a structure, so I can thus see: `How can I make this concept relatable to an eight year old?’”
Best in Class’ curriculum has helped the company, which opened its first center in 1995, to expand to over thirty communities nationwide, including neighboring Union City, Cupertino, Fremont and San Jose. The program offers not only private tutoring for K-12 students, but also SAT/ACT test preparation and group classes.
Angelina Xu, whose son Mark recently took a diagnostic test for Best in Class tutoring, appreciated Best in Class’ structured teaching approach and curriculum.
“Though I don’t want my kids doing homework until midnight, I think it is important to implement structure in their study schedules,” she said. “This is one big difference between China’s education system and America’s education system.”
Xu learned about the Best in Class center by bumping into Zhao’s husband at the Palo Alto Farmers Market, spotting his “Best in Class” t-shirt and colorful flyers advertising the center.
Publicized through personal encounters and social media, Best in Class brought in several families during its Grand Opening this Saturday. Five children signed up at the event and have already taken their English and math assessment tests. Zhao is offering free classes for the center’s first week.
She is also hoping to hire more tutors. Though Zhao has posted job openings across a variety of colleges and websites, she hopes in particular to attract Stanford students.
“My original thinking when I found this location was great, I am not far from Stanford so I can hire Stanford students for this center … I still have positions open, so I welcome students to apply,” she said.
This article has been corrected to describe Shan Zhao’s volunteering position at Brady Elementary PTA and more accurately identify the tutor, Peter Liang. The Daily regrets this error.