Out of the classroom, but still plugged into learning

Courtesy of MindLaunch
MindLaunch, a local tutoring and advising service that uses virtual classrooms, pairs credentialed teachers from around the country with students working on an array of subjects.

While some grade-school students spend much of the summer attending camps and taking family trips, others press on in the academic world. They’re the target market for Los Altos entrepreneur Elaine Sigal.

The teacher-turned-tutor – who spent years as a September-to-June educator – has founded a startup that serves students after-hours and through the dog days of summer.

MindLaunch, a virtual classroom tutoring service, connects credentialed teachers from around the country with students who seek to study their subject specialties. For instance, incoming eighth-graders in the Los Altos School District who will miss the new geometry curriculum currently in development can take an online course, supplemented with one-on-one or small-group guidance from a MindLaunch math tutor.

In addition to subject-specific tutoring, MindLaunch offers test preparation and college counseling.

“I had a brick-and-mortar tutoring company for 15 years. To be able to (now) have access to incredible teachers from all over the U.S. is wonderful,” Sigal said. “Eighty percent of the teachers are teaching during the day, another 10 percent are on maternity leave or moms, and the rest are those who decided they want to retire from the classroom.”

Los Altos Hills resident Allyson Campa, a serial entrepreneur in the area, teamed up with Sigal as CEO at MindLaunch. The female-run partnership (their chief operating officer is also a local woman) congealed after an initial seven-hour interview that sounded like the high-tech version of an epic first date.

“Partnerships are tough,” Campa said appreciatively as they described taking a leap of faith to build the business together. “We all hold the same belief about education: It’s doing what’s best for each individual.”

Digital collaboration

MindLaunch assigns a principal educator to each client to learn the student’s goals, assess difficulties and then develop a personal academic roadmap. The company targets the K-12 market but has had college students return for assistance in transfer or grad school applications.

“Some of the kids really enjoy learning online because of the capabilities and flexibility that technology has to offer,” Sigal said.

She’s piloted the company’s technological platform over the past two years, using video conferencing software to bring teachers and students face to face online. Teachers contribute content and students can see, hear and interact through a virtual whiteboard. Math and science students are encouraged to purchase an electronic tablet that can write on a shared screen. The format also facilitates collaboration within the family.

“If mom’s at work, dad’s on a business trip and the teenager is at home, they can all be on the computer with a college adviser,” Sigal said. “When people come to us, we’re dealing with the parents. … The whole idea is to help parents be proactive in their children’s education.”

Tutors connect with parents to discuss standardized testing options, what’s accomplished during each session and, for parents who homeschool, offer guidance on grading and test prep. Sigal blogs for a homeschoolers newsletter.

Online sessions range in price from $40 to $99 depending on the size of the class, subject matter and the number of classes enrolled in simultaneously.

Maximum class size is eight, but classes are typically kept to six students. Each participant can see everyone else in the group classroom setup, which approximately half of MindLaunch’s clients use. The company records and archives every session, and parents may request copies for review.

Given the variety of formats, students can tailor the classroom structure to their styles: working on their own, then visiting with a teacher to review; or taking a class, then going home to do follow-up work.

MindLaunch has approximately 200 teachers either actively tutoring or undergoing its vetting process. Sigal said they are always looking for more.

Asked why her teachers wouldn’t set up shop as independent tutors, Sigal said many teachers are not business types who want to take up scheduling, billing and booking tutoring locations.

“From home, there’s no commute and there’s scheduling flexibility,” Campa said. “Teachers and students are willing to schedule at non-traditional times – we just got a request for a Saturday night.”

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