By Nancy Dahlberg The Miami Herald.
In 2007, Tracy LaFlamme Ortega opened her first Learning Center in Key Biscayne. Today the former high school English teacher is running a global education-technology company that provides test preparation and supplemental lessons to students anywhere, anytime, on any device.
Ortega's company, PREPWORKS, painstakingly developed an online platform for its tutoring methodology and launched it in 2011.
Now PREPWORKS' technology is used by more than 100,000 people in 26 states and 18 countries.
PREPWORKS is an adaptive learning company; its supplemental curricula is for middle and high schools -- public, private and charter -- in core subjects like algebra and civics, while its PSAT, SAT and ACT programs ready high school students for college entrance tests.
"We have translated the science and success of our 10 years of 1-to-1 tutoring into a highly scalable and adaptive online platform that delivers the most prescriptive learning experience to students seeking college and career readiness," Ortega said. She worked briefly at a test prep company, wondered why results were not better, and set out to develop a better way: "We are really looking to make a difference."
Over the years, the Key Biscayne learning center and a second one in Coconut Grove have served as incubators to develop and test the company's proprietary adaptive learning processes. Not a one-size-fits-all system of the the past, PREPWORKS "serves as a GPS for each student, delivering to each student instructional content and practice activities specific to the student's specific level of mastery and deficiency in given lesson areas," said Ortega, in an interview at the Coconut grove center.
Content includes videos, technology-enhanced practice questions, and a writable sketchpad accessible from any Internet-ready device. The result: 281 trillion personalized learning paths, Ortega said. "For our SAT and ACT programs, we have a track record of improvement of 300 SAT points and 5 ACT points."
Unlike private tutoring unaffordable to many, the company's online courses cost about $100 to $300 in the direct-to-consumer market, and the company is testing a monthly subscription model that would bring the cost down to about $25 a month, Ortega said. Schools and districts that PREPWORKS partners with pay about $10 to $75 per student depending on the course. "We see technology as the great equalizer in education," she said.
We see technology as the great equalizer in education.
PREPWORKS CEO Tracy LaFlamme Ortega Until now, PREPWORKS has quietly developed its products and grown, but is now ready to scale. While Ortega won't disclose revenue figures, it's in the multi-millions, Ortega said, with an average year-over-year growth rate of 120 percent since launching its e-learning systems in 2011.
Her company, now with 12 employees and 30 contractors, has attracted more than $2 million in angel funding, including an investment from e-learning entrepreneur John Edelson in the spring.
"I always look first for a market that is growing and ripe for innovation, and test preparation is really ripe," said Edelson, founder of Fort Lauderdale-based SpellingCity.com, Time4Learning.com and other e-learning sites. "Tests are increasing and evolving, and tests are getting better ... and somewhat adaptive. The company has a sophisticated adaptive learning technology to address this market. A good adaptive system will see which skill or concept you are missing ... and teach you something you really needed to know."
Tests are increasing and evolving, and tests are getting better ... and somewhat adaptive. The company has a sophisticated adaptive learning technology to address this market.
E-learning entrepreneur and investor John Edelson To be sure, the market is large and crowded. According to BMO Capital Markets, estimates for the U.S. K-12 tutoring and test preparation range from $5 billion to $7 billion. BMO Capital Markets projects that spending in K-12 testing and assessment will reach roughly $1.8 billion in 2019. With such a big opportunity, there are dozens of ed-tech companies in this sector, from startups to established players like Kaplan.
"PREPWORKS has a winner product in a market that's growing and in need of better products. The next step is 'let's learn to market this thing broadly.' The company's Web presence has room for improvement as does some other pieces of its sales and marketing," said Edelson, who has been an e-learning entrepreneur for 12 years. "But it's poised for growth, and it's a relatively easy challenge to overcome."
One market PREPWORKS is going after hard is helping public schools and districts to significantly increase student performance in core subject areas such as algebra, civics and language arts. In Louisiana, PREPWORKS has already started to make a difference, as 100 percent of eighth-graders enrolled in PREPWORKS algebra achieved a passing score on their official state assessment, in a district where the historical pass rate was 44 percent, Ortega said.
"Our experiences with PREPWORKS were very favorable. We started with 15 students and entered a partnership with the parents, the students and the school, and we all signed off that we would have a part in supporting the child but this course is really set up to be an independent," said Cherie Haydel Goins, assistant principal of Martin Behrman Charter School Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences in New Orleans, who has signed up to again offer PREPWORKS.
PREPWORKS is also partnering with Teach for America, a nonprofit that helps low-performing schools. The courseware will be offered free to all 300 students who attend the organization's ROOTS Miami leadership summit on Nov. 21 with teachers and families. "PREPWORKS is really invested in the potential of students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools ... and that they have the tools that they need to succeed," said Kiesha Moodie, managing director of alumni and community impact at Teach for America. "Hopefully this can be a model about how education and tech can partner and collaborate at a grassroots level."
Along with schools and the direct-to-consumer market in the U.S., the company sees significant opportunity internationally.
Last year, the company began selling in China, where the SAT/ACT test prep market is estimated to be $225 million. All lessons are in English because the curricula aims to prepare the student for college and career readiness in the United States, Ortega said.
Ortega understands the complicated world of test prep, and she brings the right attitude to her course design, said Penny Townsend, head of school for Miami's Ransom Everglades, which has recently begun using the SAT and ACT PREPWORKS programs. "We see this as a low-stress way for students to assess their own test-taking skills and preparedness -- and that the process will hopefully build confidence. The program is focused on identifying strengths and finding solutions for weaknesses."
At Ransom Everglades, the program is a voluntary endeavor, Townsend said. "We hope that this kind of engagement will ultimately lead to more intrinsically motivated learners capable of self-directed study -- skills needed in our technologically infused world."