Don Scheeler, executive vice president of specialized services at Learn It Systems, has more than 25 years of experience in the education industry. He has leveraged that to broaden the range of services Learn It provides, tapped large markets such as autism and made strategic acquisitions in a quest for rapid growth.
“Autism is multibillion dollar opportunity,” he told citybizlist’s Edwin Warfield in an interview. “There is a tremendous amount of opportunity to do roll-ups but also expand our services from an organic standpoint as well.”
Before joining Learn It, Scheeler spent 15 years with the Sylvan/Educate family of companies, and served as the president and CEO of Progressus Therapy, a national provider of school-based therapy, and the general manager for the higher education startup 2U (formerly 2tor).
Scheeler earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance from the University of Maryland and a Masters in Business Management from the Johns Hopkins University.
EDWIN WARFIELD: So how did it all start?
DON SCHEELER: I was working in Sylvan and growing rapidly. Doug and Chris were creating quite a large educational company, in a lot of areas whether it is Sylvan for direct tutoring or Catapult, which went into school systems etc. And at that time I was at the Catapult side, new legislation was coming up for No Child Left Behind. So we were looking at how we could help do tutoring after school for kids who do not have any money, Title I students etc., and we grew that very rapidly.
We hired 6,000 teachers in an 18-month period to help develop that program and so that really helped kind of get us going and really supercharged Catapult. Catapult, at that time, was working in, majority of the work was done in Baltimore City, Philadelphia, LA, Milwaukee, Chicago and working with religious schools providing all-day services and so that was a slow growth company. Doug and Chris liked to really grow much quicker and so we developed that program and grew that tremendously to close to $40 million over a three- or four-year period. So that really gave me a lot of operational experience from an HR perspective to grow something that rapidly.
As we continued to do that, John Hoey was at a company called Progressus Therapy, which we had purchased during that timeframe and John was then looking to not travel as much because it was a national company and he made the move to head up the YMCA in Central Maryland. Then they said, hey, you know John has got a lot of operational experience, he has got the HR experience, Progressus is in essence a core staffing business and so we need somebody with operational experience in recruiting HR experience.
I went into that position in 2006. Over three or four years we doubled that business and then I started talking to Chip in the rocket ship that he was looking to start up and I helped with that in starting their fourth program, the Georgetown Masters of Nursing. Over that ten-year period, there was a lot of growth and opportunities for me to grow and it turned out to be very helpful for my career and a great learning experience for me.
Our mission at Learn It System is to make sure you know every child gets the opportunity to grow and meet their potential. So we work with the majority of our students, students with special needs and so we work with each individual plan or each individual child to make sure that they meet the potential that they possibly can. We have experts in so many different areas; over 12 PhD’s, speech language pathology expertise, OT, school psychologists, etc., etc., behavior intervention because each student, again particularly with special needs, has a lot of different types of needs. And so that is what we went out to look and make sure that we were able to be that one-stop shop for each child depending upon what those needs were.
EDWIN WARFIELD: You also made a few acquisitions?
DON SCHEELER: We have grown dramatically over the last two or three years, organically and through acquisitions. And as I said earlier we were looking to provide the best expertise for the students we serve. We do a tremendous job with academic support, behavior intervention but we also needed to make sure that we had the expertise outside of related services; related services is speech language pathology and OT.
Our first acquisition was in 2012, Desert Choice Schools. There were two school psychologists who had started the business seven years earlier and worked with students who were suspended from school. If you are kicked out of a classroom you still need to learn and provide those proper services, so we worked with those gentlemen, purchased that business and help scale them from seven classrooms to over 30 now, helping over 300 students.
Over 30% of the students re-integrated back into the school system. If you look around the country, it is generally 5% to 7%. So this is a huge opportunity for the students to, after 9 or 12 months, get back into the mainstream. So that was our first foray to get that expertise and understand the type of students that they have and what avenues would help us with our other businesses.
We then continued to look and said there was a huge need in the country for students who have autism. So we probably had 120 calls, campus visits and it came down to two of the best. We thought we were the best providers and experts in that area. Autism Spectrum Therapies, headquartered in California, and one locally here called Trellis Services. They have the Trellis School in Sparks, Maryland. They are just tremendous organizations and the culture of those organizations and the passion they have for those students is amazing and what they do with those students is incredible. It was very easy for us to see that they melded exactly with our mission and our values to make sure when we are entrusted with someone’s child and when we are entrusted with state dollars and federal dollars that we are doing everything we possibly can to move the dial of that student and that child. Now, our services are in multiple states providing all of these different types of services with the expertise and so as we have continued to look at the educational landscape and more specifically in special education landscape. We think we now have the expertise to really go nationally and go a little bit harder and deeper into some of the areas that we are currently in.
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