It’s unbelievable to think that 10 years have passed.
Alexis and I faced the same challenges that any entrepreneurs face (FINANCING, service ideas, business plans, branding, marketing, recruitment, location scouting, bureaucracy).
Added to this, though, are the challenges that come with pioneering your own education method and then transitioning from an education company to also being an elementary school and now a high school.
Someone once said to us “I never knew it was so easy to start a school!”
And neither is establishing a school that has a method of education unlike anything else that Vancouver has to offer – yet.
Pear Tree Education was formally established back in 2011. However, it took until March 2012 for us to open for business.
Firstly, we had to scout around trying to find a place that would accommodate an education business – one that had group classes like a normal school. A ground-floor location was simply too expensive and not particularly child friendly either.
In a city like Vancouver that seems to only have the mentality that you are either an office or a retail outlet, it is not easy to find a location like the one we found with the space, the all-round natural light, and the accessibility. It was our landlord’s former head office, which then became nothing more than a location for voting.
To this day, we still get the same-old comments about our ‘unusual location’ from people that have no idea of the difficulty of starting a school or finding an education-friendly location in Vancouver.
And, quite frankly, we LOVE our location and the space that we’ve created!
Vancouver is also not small business friendly. Banks don’t like to lend money to new businesses, and there is little to no help provided by the City or Province for new businesses, unless you’re in the tech sector.
Alexis and I had saved $60,000 to contribute towards the financial costs, which we burned through on rent while waiting for City Hall to give us our development/building permits – thank you CoV…
We had the vision to turn something like this:
As we teach in Pear Tree, you don’t achieve anything alone. Starting Pear Tree was no exception.
Alexis’ family helped with hand building shelving and our Lego tables, as well as tiling, putting up our noticeboards, making bean bags, and so much more!
The first few years were really rough.
Despite hitting the ground running with implementing our education approach into theme-based after school courses and spring/summer camps, the numbers were well below what we had anticipated.
To try to survive, we had to resort to offering birthday parties and one-on-one tutoring – neither of which really fit our educational beliefs.
We operated our after-school classes directly in local schools since most parents weren’t willing to drive their children to our classes. Most either wanted child care or remedial tutoring. Enrichment classes weren’t a priority for them.
What is worse, these things still didn’t provide enough money to stay afloat.
The lowest moment for us was having to share our precious facility with another institution – I’m not going to sugar coat it. It was a tenuous circumstance for both parties, as it wasn’t really their space and was no longer just our space.
However, the rent they paid helped us find out financial footing so that we could finally reclaim the space exclusively for ourselves.
For several years, we earned no income. In fact, much of Alexis’ teaching salary was used to keep Pear Tree afloat. It is always ‘interesting’, therefore, if we hear people grumbling about money, as they have no idea the sacrifices we’ve made to make Pear Tree what it is.
The growth of our summer camps is one of our biggest achievements.
2012 was the first year of our summer camps. We only had our Kitsilano location, and we only had 48 registrations for the entire summer!
In 2013, we had 271
In 2014, we had 358
And in 2015, we launched two additional locations in Burnaby and East Van.
Today, we have 4 summer camp locations: Kitsilano, East Van, North Van, and White Rock and get around 1,000 registrations in one summer.
In many instances, people look down upon those who are a ‘jack of all trades’ and think that being a ‘specialist’ is the ideal.
As an entrepreneur, the opposite is most certainly the case. You have to be willing to wear many hats, because you can’t afford to hire people to do all of those jobs for you.
For the first 5 years of Pear Tree, Alexis and I did everything, managing, teaching, administration, pre-camp/after-camp, field trip supervision, cleaning, moving furniture, etc.
We both have a strong work ethic, Alexis more so than even me, which is an essential trait for any business owner.
In 2013, however, I decided that we needed a Healthy Hot Lunch Program – and I would be the chef!
Bear in mind that this was only our second year of summer camps. Already, I had had enough of kids coming to our camps with pizzas, hamburgers, hot dogs, or dried seaweed for ‘lunch’.
From the first year of introducing our hot lunch program, we’ve always had at least 60% of families sign up for it!
Today, we get so much recognition for our hot lunch program! And, I’m no longer the chef!
As we became more popular, we started getting the following kinds of comments:
“Why does my child love attending your education camps, but hates going to school?”
“Have you ever given any thought to starting a school?”
“If you ever start a school, I would definitely sign my kid up!”
In reality, we had never given any thought to starting a school.
We had started Pear Tree Education to inspire schools to change, but they didn’t.
And, Pear Tree was designed to supplement the incomplete education they were getting in their school.
Eventually, we realised that if ‘they’ can do it (i.e. other schools), we can do it even better!
As I mentioned above, starting a school is no easy feat. There are a lot of red-tape hurdles to overcome, whether it’s zoning issues (n.b. Vancouver is even worse for getting zoning approval for schools…) or Ministry of Education approval.
A lot of thought had gone into creating Pear Tree Education. Even more thought went into creating Pear Tree Elementary!
This is why we can wholeheartedly say that everything about Pear Tree is there for a reason. Nothing is for show.
We also faced the challenge of getting people to attend a new school with a completely new education system.
Trust is a significant factor in parents choosing a school, and it takes open-minded parents to take the leap of faith to trust us with their children’s educations. Unfortunately, none of the families who encouraged us to start a school were actually willing to take that leap, which was really disappointing.
Instead, we met a diverse mix of other families who were willing to trust us! Thank you to them for their support!
In the first year, we went from having barely enough students to start a school (10 is the minimum) to very quickly growing.
By 2017, we had 30 students.
By 2018, we were full to capacity and needed to expand our facilities, something we couldn’t immediately do.
Curiously, we started being approached by other schools, some of them very well known, asking us how to implement theme-based learning at a high school level, or how to start a kindergarten (as if it is somehow so different from grade 1…). I guess we should be flattered!
There were the naysayers who, I’m pleased to say, we have proven to be wrong.
With important changes to the provincial exams, Pear Tree Elementary was ready to become Pear Tree School, no longer just an elementary school, but now evolving to add middle and high school grades!
Once again, we faced the hurdles of getting approval for expanding our facilities and getting funding from the banks.
In 2021, we expanded our facilities and renovated the existing space, which was a major investment for us that dwarfs our original financial investment back in 2012!
As we don’t ask for or accept donations, this expansion is paid for through all of the other services that we have built over the years, especially our summer camps.
While all of the above are achievements we are super proud of, we have so many goals for the future of Pear Tree!
As the song goes “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet!”
Our team continues to grow and improve as we attract even greater talents, and not just teachers!
For 2022/23, we are hiring two more teachers to accommodate our growing numbers, as we quickly grow from a 45 student school to our increased capacity of 80.
Expect to see more summer camp locations across the Lower Mainland as we figure out which communities would most appreciate our high-quality education camps. We are even offering our hot lunch program to some of our other camp locations!
What is more, after many years of personal sacrifice and putting Pear Tree families first, Alexis and I are finally starting a family of our own. Alexis is expecting our first child this coming August. Yes, a future Pear Tree student!