Railroad veterans Heather Anckner and Andrew Beh stepped into the world of education by purchasing Sylvan Learning of Ponte Vedra Beach in early January. Now, the business partners have set their sights on reaching underprivileged youth and opening satellite locations throughout St. Johns County.
Sylvan Learning Center of Ponte Vedra Beach was open for 16 years prior to its recent change in ownership. Anckner said she met Beh, a former high school math teacher, in the railroad industry and connected with the previous owners of the Ponte Vedra Sylvan location through their consulting firm. Soon enough, Beh and Anckner developed a mutual interest in purchasing a Sylvan Learning Center location in St. Johns County.
Anckner said she was inspired to get involved in education after meeting one of Sylvan’s former owners at a conference in Texas. During the conference, she told a story about her second-grade son and how bored he was at school due to being ahead of his peers. The former owner responded by pointing Anckner to Sylvan.
“From there I learned more about the actual franchise and how supportive the environment was and how it really helps every kid,” she said. “I love anything that has to do with kids and reading and learning and excelling.”
Anckner immediately connected with the franchise because she struggled with dyslexia in school, which posed challenges for her as a child.
"I was fortunate that I didn't have academic challenges,” Anckner said. “But I had struggles and frustrations with reading and such. To come into an environment like this where [Sylvan teachers] can help any kid just amazes me. So that's why we decided to take this leap of faith into education."
The negotiation phase with Sylvan was short, Anckner said, but the approval period took three months.
“Sylvan doesn't let just anyone buy a franchise," she noted. "They go through a very arduous process to make sure you're the type of owners they want to have; they make sure you have valid business plans."
Having negotiated the purchases of $50-100 million railroads, Anckner said the financial side of purchasing Sylvan was “small in comparison” to her railroad work. However, the vetting process put Anckner and Beh under a microscope because Sylvan wanted to ensure the new owners would run the location efficiently and promote honorable values. Anckner and Beh weren’t scared away by the arduous vetting, she said. In fact, the process made the railroaders feel more secure about their decision.
"We went up to their corporate offices," Anckner said. "We were required to take orientation classes, we were required to meet everyone from their COO to their PR people. You name it, we had to meet them and understand the process and understand their way of doing things before we made the decision that this is really something we want to move forward with."
Speaking of moving forward, Anckner plans on reaching more children in more communities throughout St. Johns County since the railroaders’ franchise agreement covers the entire county.
"Sylvan allows you to open satellites throughout your community, and we are open to the entire St. Johns County area," Anckner said. "It gives us the ability to move into an area and have one or two or three day a week service at a location that isn't a full franchise location like this one. Andy and I would like to open a second franchise location as well in the next few years, but our first point of entry into the community is to open satellites."
Another goal Anckner has for her Sylvan branch is to work with Title I schools.
"One of the things that was really important for Andy and I when we really looked into this is to be able to help children of all economic levels," she said, "not just what you would consider the more privileged."
Anckner noted that she wants to help children without access to educational opportunities, such as tutoring services.
More about Sylvan
Anckner described Sylvan as an established presence in the community that offers "phenomenal" resources for students.
"For students that are struggling, we work with teachers," she said. "The parents have an opportunity to do a release that allows us to contact the teachers and have a three-way communication with the parent and the school system as well."
Sylvan works with students to identify their current strengths by creating an action plan that meets parental and student objectives, the railroader added. The learning center helps a wide variety of students, whether they're struggling or not.
"We have students in here that get As and are working two grade levels ahead of where they are in school," she revealed. "It's for everyone. We've got student athletes that want to make sure they get into the schools they want. And we have kids that are struggling to make the FSAs [Florida Standards Assessments] – versus being held back at the end of the year – they come here for their homework because they have a limited amount of time outside of practice in order to get their homework done."
According to Anckner, the Ponte Vedra location is one of the leading Sylvan locations for SAT/ACT test-prep. It also helps students get accepted into college and prepared for postsecondary education.
Furthermore, the center offers STEM and robotics classes for students who aren’t being challenged in other environments and want to learn something new.
For more information on Sylvan, visit www.sylvanlearning.com or call (904) 280-8410.
**The originally published version of this article misspelled Andrew Beh's name.