They say it on the playground — it takes one to know one.
Reflecting on the astronomical success of SOAR Learning, Inc., a Lake Orion-based start-up with an innovative curriculum that teaches kids how to effectively learn, it all circles back to that schoolyard retort. Before selling half a million copies of her book on Amazon.com, before 700 schools across the country adopted her study strategies, even before becoming a teacher and successful tutor, Susan Kruger was a struggling student.
High school, she remembers, was always a challenge. Leaving Dearborn for Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, “I heard horror stories that college would require two to three more hours of study time every day,” Kruger says “and I thought, ‘There is no way I can do that.’
She armed herself with books on study skills and personal organization; adopting the strategies that seemed to help, abandoning what she couldn’t use. And that first semester at WMU, the struggling student came home for the holidays with a 3.9 GPA.
“I finally learned I can do anything I set my mind to,” Kruger says. “I didn’t feel anywhere near that much confidence when school was such a challenge for me.”
Armed with her new-found knowledge, Kruger became a teacher and tutor, opening her own business in 1996. Her one-on-one lessons were so effective, she says, “that it got to the point where I had more requests for tutoring than I had after-school hours.” So she began to plan a workshop. Within 15 minutes of brainstorming, Kruger says, the SOAR acronym and the birth of her entrepreneurial venture both began to take shape. “I had one piece of notebook paper, and on it, the whole program just poured right out of my head,” she says. “It took some time to create the course pack. Within a summer I had the course developed, and I started offering it the following fall.” It was the seed of a hunch Kruger always had, that she could find a way to combine her business smarts and professional educational development into one career. SOAR Learning, Inc. was born.
The SOAR curriculum sets itself apart for a number of reasons. “If you do a search on study skills online, you’ll find millions of results — but it’s a hodgepodge of tips,” Kruger cautions. First, and most importantly, since it’s designed for young students, the curriculum is purposefully easy to master. “For some of these strategies, students really have to know the subject well to know what strategy to use to learn it,” she says. “And if they know the subject that well, then they don’t really need the study skill in the first place.” The strategies and concepts Kruger teaches stretch across curricula, connecting piece-by-piece into a framework students can use for their entire lives. The program also encourages active participation from family members.
With a new baby at home, Kruger began the often-arduous process of writing and publishing her own book in 2005. “It was an undertaking because I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t have much money at all,” she remembers. “So every mistake took money, and it was a setback to have to wait until the next round (of printing).” That book, titled SOAR Study Skills, is regularly #1 in test prep and a top 10 bestseller in the education category on Amazon.com.
But the first few years were marked by slow growth. “We had a big growth spurt during the whole season of 2009 and I attribute that to a very specific marketing plan,” Kruger says. “I had taken a class and really learned how to use Google AdWords and optimize our website.” In 2009, her business grew 600%.
A fortunate meeting with Oakland County Deputy Executive Matthew Gibb, then the Supervisor of Orion Township, helped Kruger deal with her company’s sudden and surprising growth. In a speech he gave at a State of the Township breakfast, she says, Gibb told the audience, ‘If you’re a small business in Orion and you need help, let us know how the government can help, instead of get in your way.’ I didn’t really realize at the moment that I needed help, but that sound bite was so powerful to me that I remembered it.” Months later, Kruger realized that she had outgrown her home office and called Gibb, who helped her sub-lease office space from Scate Technologies, another fast-moving Orion company.
“Susan is the harvest of the entrepreneurial garden we planted in Orion,” says Gibb. “She needed a helping hand, so we found what she needed and watched as she herself “soared”.
Today, the SOAR curriculum has expanded to offer numerous resources for students, parents educators. In Troy, Pontiac, Royal Oak and Northville (and about 800 other schools across the nation), kids are learning tips and strategies to make learning in every subject easier and more effective. Kruger says SOAR is attacking two distinct areas of the education spectrum. “We have schools purchasing the program for students who are struggling; kids in Special Ed or at-risk types of situations,” she says. “we have other schools who have adopted a school-wide initiative. They want all the kids to learn fundamental organizational and learning strategies. They know that students are going to need that to be successful model students and also to be successful in the workplace.”
Study skills are often called “soft skills,” but the cost of not teaching students these strategies will have dire implications for the economy, Kruger says. A 2008 Emerging Sectors study conducted by Oakland County found that companies across industries valued skills like reading comprehension, time management and organization most. Out of 57 essential qualities for employees in the new economy, only four had anything to do with technology. A 2009 study by Ohio State University found that students who took a study skills class were 45% more likely to graduate from college. If they were average students in high school, that study skills class makes a struggling student 600% more likely to earn a university degree. And a joint study by Stanford University and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation interviewed 500 CEOs, discovering that soft skills, not technological know-how or industry expertise, accounted for 75% of their professional success. “Employers are having to look elsewhere for employees who have these skills,” Kruger warns. “If you do a search on soft skills, you’ll see a lot of foreign companies are really catching on to soft skill training. They’re going to be taking our jobs.”
That’s why Kruger says the next phase of her company’s development will integrate the SOAR curriculum into a program for business professionals in the workplace. “I get a lot of requests from parents of kids I work with, asking if I would come to the office,” she says with a laugh. “Employers are screaming for soft skills. Education is just focused on content and we’re not teaching students how to learn this content and what to do with it.“
Arguably, it’s those soft skills that have made Kruger not only a successful teacher, but a wife and mom of two able to juggle a growing business with three full-time employees. “Being a teacher requires a lot of organization and lesson planning,” she says. “A lot of forward thinking and mapping things out. That’s what I do to grow the business exactly — map things out, keep it all organized and execute the plan.”
Visit studyskills.com to find out more.