USA Today

By Bill Meyers USA Today

TODAY’S ENTREPRENEURS: PROFILES OF SMALL BUSINESSES

Nobody knows how she came up with the revolutionary ideas that could change the way children are educated in the USA.

“They just popped into my head,” says Donna Blevins, the 60-year-old former-teacher-turned-entrepreneur. “And I really wanted to do something positive.”

“God speaks to the heart of certain people, gives them a vision and they follow,” adds Jack Gilbert, Blevins’ business partner. “He saw that Donna’s heart was heavy with passion and she just followed.”

Blevins’ journey from the classrooms of impoverished Appalachia to the boardrooms of high-powered venture capitalists is hardly complete.

But Be Smart Kids, her fledgling Tennessee-based company, has already helped 1,500 youngsters advance their reading, writing and computing skills by combining high-tech software and high-touch stroking. The Be Smart Kids approach to pre-kindergarten and elementary school education revolves around weekly half-hour computer sessions at the company’s learning centers. Each one-on-one tutorial costs about $20 and is a fast-paced multimedia frolic.

“I was floored by this,” says Robert McElrath, an investor in Be Smart Kids and Tennessee’s former commissioner of education. “Donna has shown how fast children can learn. It’s the most exciting thing in a long time.”

The mother of three daughters, Blevins hadn’t taught in 25 years and couldn’t use a PC when she decided to put a new curriculum on the computer in 1991.

She borrowed a dusty old PC from a vocational school in her hometown of Greeneville, a hamlet of 17,000 in northeast Tennessee.

Blevins taught herself the technology and reviewed more than 1,000 pieces of educational software. She chose 70 of the best and organized them into lesson plans for teachers.

An 18-month-old toddler, for example, pushes the letter “R” on the keyboard. A bunch of balloons on the computer screen blows up and turns red while music plays. Then the balloons burst and the teacher reinforces the alphabet, phonics and counting lesson.

A 2-year-old points and clicks with a mouse that meows like a kitten. Then it’s time to trace numbers on the screen with the teacher while a musical bear dances.

And a 4-year-old plays Sea School, manipulating a digital fishing rod to pick up letters and words with the teacher’s encouragement.

“Children sense when we’re having fun,” Blevins says. “And if we’re having fun, they have fun. Our teachers are cheerleaders, but they’re always in control.”

Be Smart Kids wasn’t an immediate success in Greeneville. Blevins’ cutting-edge curriculum was unproven, and some parents weren’t interested in having their children participate in an educational experiment.

While she waited for positive word-of-mouth to build, Blevins went door-to-door and began recruiting students at day-care centers.

Today, after hundreds of thousands of interactive lessons with balloons and bears, test scores for Be Smart Kids’ kids are soaring.

Blevins recently administered the standardized TerraNova test to 20 of her students. The 4- and 5-year-olds performed at a second-grade level. And the 6-year-olds achieved like fourth-graders.

Joy Parker, who has sent her 6-year-old daughter, Taylor, to Blevins for the past 3 1/2 years, marvels at her offspring’s ability to do complicated addition and subtraction problems.

“Be Smart Kids has made things come so naturally for Taylor,” Parker says. “She makes me buy math books so she can show me what she has learned.”

The big challenge facing Blevins and Gilbert is expanding their educational business and making kids smart all over the country.

Gilbert, a 57-year-old engineer who has launched several high-tech start-ups, knows it won’t be easy.

“One of the biggest hurdles is that people continue to ask us, ‘Who are you?’ ” he says.

Be Smart Kids needs cash as well as credibility.

The company generated only about $100,000 in revenue last year, although it has raised $350,000 from a group of high-net-worth individuals.

The goal is to raise $2 million for a roll-out of Be Smart Kids learning centers beyond Tennessee.

There seems to be demand — and even some desperation — for a product such as Blevins’.

Parents, educators and state officials across the USA agree that preschool education needs to be dramatically improved because crucial learning patterns are established during the early years.

As a result, legislatures in many states are debating how to enrich their preschool programs.

Gilbert hopes Be Smart Kids can sign contracts with several of these states and bring Blevins’ curriculum to more children. The entrepreneur is also targeting large day-care chains and corporations that offer employees educational assistance.

But, as McElrath says: “It will take a lot of convincing. We’ve had so many so-called educational fixes in the past that didn’t last and had no chance to work.”

Still, the Be Smart Kids team is determined to go to the head of the class.

Says Otto Wheeley, the company’s east Tennessee-based venture capitalist: “If we can make money and do something worthwhile for society at the same time, I’d love that.”