When Alexander Ho walks through the Sylvan Learning Center he runs in West Bloomfield, he chats with students and knows them all by name.
He also knows just what they need help with to achieve academic success.
That’s Sylvan’s goal. Its personalized tutoring is focused on building academic confidence, igniting intellectual curiosity and inspiring a love for learning – all things that will help the students in school and throughout life.
Now Ho, the second generation of his family to run the center, wants to expand and take that same personalized tutoring to Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood.
Ho saw in Detroit a place underserved by Sylvan’s type of tutoring and an opportunity to be part the city’s resurgence.
“There are lessons that teach you that it is about helping the person,” he says.
After more than half a decade of success with Sylvan, Ho decided it was time to expand and looked for a place in Detroit and found it in Brightmoor. The Brightmoor location will not open until January 2019, but Ho has already begun making a name for Sylvan and its program in the community.
He started to attend block meetings to get to know the neighborhood and its concerns and visited schools. In the West Bloomfield headquarters there is a map of Detroit with markers for schools he has visited and those he plans to call on.
Ho meets with the principals of these schools to discuss the Sylvan methods and how they can help students improve and to find out what specific challenges each school faces. He also offers an hour of free tutoring to students. Many of the students who have taken advantage of the offer have experienced a noticeable difference in their studies. In some cases, parents of students have approached Ho, or his staff, asking how their children can get involved.
The program at Brightmoor will have flexible pay options and adjusted schedules to accommodate different work schedules for parents. Ho says he will also eventually need to eventually hire more tutors to compensate for the increase in the number of students.
The son of immigrants, Ho was born into a very education-oriented family. His parents, Dr. Leo and Julie Ho, fled China during the Cultural Revolution, headed to Taiwan and then Hong Kong, before coming to the US to advance their degrees.
They first came to Atlanta where his mother earned her master’s degree at Atlanta University, then moved to Detroit where is his father earned his doctorate from Wayne State University.
In 1986, his parents became one of the first people to own a Sylvan franchise in Michigan. As they tutored kids, they also taught Ho with the same personalize tutoring method.
Ho learned and used the lessons from Sylvan into adulthood. Still, he had no intention of running Sylvan and has parents had no stated desire to for him to follow in their footsteps.
“As any parent, they wanted for their child to do better than them,” he says.
Ho went to the New York University Stern School of Business and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in finance and international business. For six years he had a successful career in finance working in New York and Hong Kong.
Unfortunate circumstances changed that.
In 2012 Ho’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and he returned home to be near his parents and help his mother. Initially, the plan was to just prepare the Sylvan center to be sold.
However, Ho found something he had been missing.
“(Finance) is a zero-sum game, you only get something by taking from someone else,” he says. “Here everybody wins.”
His mother recovered and the center did change hands, but it didn’t leave the family.
Ho took over and made some changes.
He digitized all the Sylvan books and put them on tablets. Tests and results are also on the tablets – for “perfect personalization,” Ho says. The students take a variety of tests, which show where they need help and where the breakdown occurred.
For instance, if a student is not doing well in a math class in the fifth grade, the test can help determine if it is because he or she lacks the foundation they should have learned in an earlier grade or if something else is standing in the way.
The Sylvan Learning Center has become a community staple for many. The West Bloomfield site has seen children who came in the 1880s grow up and bring their children in for tutoring. Kids, who stopped attending as they mastered their skills, are remembered and warmly welcomed back when they return for SAT/ACT prep courses. Ho’s mother will even, on rare occasions, even still stop by to some tutoring.
Ho’s goal is to offer that same passion for learning and sense of welcome in students Brightmoor.
This is not only a story about helping Detroit’s young people expand their education. It is also the story of the success of two immigrants, who started a business that would make a difference in the lives of many, and who raised their son to value connecting to communities and helping institute change.
There is something very American about the dream … and its reality.
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