Community Spotlight: Frontier Tutoring

by J. Besl  |   

UAA alumni and educators at the Frontier Tutoring office in Anchorage. From the left, Brittany Spurlock, Ben Woodland, Heidi M. Bauer, Alex Bassett, Paul Huske, Daniel Hoffman, Janelle Wight and Brian Franklin.

UAA alumni and educators at the Frontier Tutoring office in Anchorage. From the left, Brittany Spurlock, Ben Woodland, Heidi M. Bauer, Alex Bassett, Paul Huske, Daniel Hoffman, Janelle Wight and Brian Franklin. Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and UAA alum Brian Franklin have a few things in common — both started a small business venture as undergrads, both projects expanded rapidly, and both ended up CEOs of their little business rather quickly. One key difference, though, is Franklin will already have a successful company under his belt by the time he gets to Harvard in 2015.

Franklin started tutoring as a college freshman at UAA in 2008, simply looking to earn a little cash while working toward his accounting degree. The laws of economics fell in his favor, though, as the demand for tutoring in Anchorage was far greater than he could ever hope to meet on his own. So he called in reinforcements. "It was originally me independently, and as more and more calls came in I pulled in some classmates," he explained. What started out as a personal side-project now needed a name, and Frontier Tutoring was born.

Several years later, Frontier Tutoring now serves everyone from 5th graders to college students. "Our strategy is to be everything for the college-bound middle and high school student," Franklin said. That broad goal ranges from standard tutoring to SAT and ACT prep, study skills and even college admission consulting. "We have everything it takes to get you from middle or high school to the college where you're trying to go," he said.

Franklin is certainly candid in the accidental nature of the company's founding. "We sort of fell into it," he explained, "but once we realized it was something we could grow, I started becoming more deliberate about building the business."

After six months, Franklin landed his first contract with a local charter school and reached a turning point. "That [contract] provided a lot of the capital that allowed us to expand the business, so it was six months after we started when we thought this could actually become something more substantial."

The team now consists of four full-time office staff, a dozen part-time tutoring specialists, and a designated workspace off Arctic Boulevard in Anchorage. The Frontier crew is almost entirely UAA affiliated; most are alumni (many from the University Honors College), some are current students, and two are even adjunct professors.

"We have a lot of tutoring specialists who are from UAA and who know each other and can network. That's where we get a lot of talent from," explained Ben Woodland, a business unit manager at Frontier and one of the first to join the team in 2008. "It's an appealing job for UAA students," Franklin added, citing the staff's flexibility around their course schedule, as well as the chance to stay sharp on their subject — whether it's grammar, algebra or molecular biology.

The company maintains strong ties to the UAA campus as well. Frontier taps into the campus career center when hiring and Rashmi Prasad, dean of the College of Business and Public Policy, even invited Frontier Tutoring to drop in on an M.B.A. class to bounce questions and ideas off his grad students. Prasad also invited Franklin to sit on the college's advisory board.

"It's definitely helpful to be part of the UAA community," Franklin said. "We get a lot of resources and connections that we wouldn't have otherwise."

Alex Bassett, an English major at UAA, works with one of his students at Frontier Tutoring.

Alex Bassett, an English major at UAA, works with one of his students at Frontier Tutoring. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Alex Bassett is one of 11 Seawolves on staff at Frontier, as well as a tutor at the UAA writing center. "I love reading and writing on a personal level," he said, "but I talk to a lot of students where writing is the bane of their existence." Over the past years he's helped dozens of students see the value in a topic sentence and realize a three-page paper isn't the end of the world. Bassett talks his students through the elements of a successful paper and lets them know there aren't right answers in writing like there are in math or science. "We're really building up critical thinking skills and developing answers," he said.

Likewise, he's building his teaching skills ahead of his next venture. In a few short weeks, Bassett will leave UAA with a B.S. in English and head south for Juneau, where he'll start a master's program in secondary education at UAS this summer.

With so many youthful, motivated go-getters on staff, turnover is expected. Staff members on average, though, stay several years at Frontier Tutoring, and Woodland jokingly counts himself among the "serial returners" who just keep coming back.

Franklin is also on his way out, but perhaps only temporarily. He's enrolling at Harvard starting next year and readily laughs off the earlier Zuckerberg comparison, adding he'd be more than happy to trade places with the Facebook founder.

After six years building his own company, Franklin is certainly qualified for his Harvard M.B.A. program, which requires students have two years of career experience prior to landing in Cambridge. "I'd like to come back to Alaska after finishing the degree and either grow the business, or do something else in Alaska," he said of his future plans, "and an M.B.A. would certainly help in terms of the knowledge and connections to do that."

For six years Frontier Tutoring has set students on the path to college, and helped its college staff become career educators. As tutoring specialists graduate and find their next step, it opens up an opportunity for a new UAA student or alumni to step in. Much like the actual frontier, there are plenty of opportunities for past and future Seawolves at Frontier Tutoring.

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