As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
Instead of celebrating their big 10-year anniversary on March 14, Pi day (3.14) and Albert Einstein’s birthday, LearningRx, the longtime brain training and cognitive skills development center located on Hamilton Place Boulevard, canceled all of its plans and went into lockdown like the rest of Hamilton County and the country.
“We canceled the party, closed and went remote with a digital testing and Zoom training option,” says Michelle Hecker Davis, executive director of LearningRx. “We had remote training options for current students or they could choose to pause their sessions.”
About half chose to pause and others went remote. LearningRx was ready.
“We had been piloting a training program for people who live far away,” Ms. Davis says. “And we were at the ending stages of the pilot when this (COVID) happened, so we said, ‘go, team.’ We were ready to go immediately into remote.”
With remote availability and an immediate PPP loan, thanks to Marsha Easter at Pinnacle Bank, LearningRx was able to keep its business going until it reopened in mid-May.
“We applied for a PPP loan early on and that made a huge difference in us being able to maintain that time without new clients and then also for my trainers.”
“They work part-time and they work one-on-one, so when half of the clients paused, they were out half of their hours. But with the PPP loan to pay them, they got paid anyway. They didn't quit. They didn't have to get unemployment. I feel really fortunate we did get the PPP loan and were able to use it to get back up and running. That was a big deal for us. It kind of saved us in my opinion.”
When LearningRx opened back not only did they follow all CDC safety guidelines but they also added plexiglass barriers between each student and trainer as well as special masks with a clear film for easy lip reading.
“There are no more than ten people at the center at one time,” Ms. Davis says. “We disinfect between each session. When a student arrives, the lobby is closed. They do a temperature check, wash hands and we start training. We haven’t had any issues because we are staying on top of it.”
In this challenging time, staying on top of it is key to staying open, and with the added educational obstacles, it’s even more important for the students who are counting on the cognitive skills training program to keep their learning improvement plan on track for success.
“We are a bridge for someone struggling in school. We don’t teach the academic information, we build skills that make it possible to learn the content.”
LearningRx primarily focuses on key skills such as attention, memory, auditory processing, logic and reasoning, and processing speed.
“Everyone really has strengths and weaknesses,” Ms. Davis says. “The majority of our students have learning struggles that range from ADHD, dyslexia, they may be on the autism spectrum or have suffered a traumatic brain injury. We also help a lot of stroke recovery patients. And, we have trained CEOs of companies and doctors who wanted to work on memory and processing speeds so they can be more efficient.”
Now backed by validated, peer-reviewed, third party studies, LearningRx has the scientific data to back up their claims of actually improving the IQ.
“We can claim an average increase in IQ by 15 points. A lot of places can’t claim that but we can. We can absolutely claim that.”
For Ms. Davis, the data is important, but what matters to her, even more, is the impact she sees the program having on her students, regularly.
“Recently, we had a 6-year-old boy who was having behavioral issues in school. At one point, he was going to the principal's office constantly,” Ms. Davis says. “He was getting extra help for math and reading, and he was struggling, and he was angry about it. He came to our training. He did not want to, but he did it. He went through the program.
“After about three months, and he was on an eight-month program, his behavior totally changed. He was acting more confident. He was more willing to try things that were hard. We foster and train a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset. The ability to make mistakes and fail is one of the biggest predictors of success, according to research by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford.
"By the end of the training, he didn’t need any more additional help with math or reading, and he tested out of speech therapy. He didn’t go to the principal’s office for a whole year. It was incredible. He loved his trainer. Her name was Elizabeth and he called her Queen Elizabeth. It was life-changing for this kid."
There are many, many similar stories. For Ms. Davis, it is why she does what she does. In fact, it was the success of her very first student that she trained 10 years ago that hooked her on the programs at LearningRx.
“My first student went through a six-month reading program, and by the time she was done, she made the honor roll. For the first time in her life, she made the honor roll. She never had to go on ADHD medication. The young girl is a student at Southern Adventist University studying to be a social worker and now interns at LearningRx helping other students like herself. It changed her life.”
And you could say LearningRx has changed Ms. Davis’ life. She was always a quick learner, top of her class, valedictorian and then after graduating from Lee University, started her professional career as a corporate CPA.
“The accounting world was easy for me and it was not a challenge. It was monotonous and it was not fulfilling for me at all. Every aptitude test I had taken said I needed to be an accountant.”
Bored and desiring something else, Ms. Davis walked away from her accounting career.
“I was looking for something part-time and trying to figure it out,” Ms. Davis says. “When I saw this ad on Craig’s List to be a brain trainer, I was like, ‘I love brain games and I love working with kids.’ I went through the training, and that was it. It was the right fit.”
Two years later and with more training, Ms. Davis became executive director, functioning very much like a first-time small business owner. It was 2012. She attributes much of her strong start to the free services offered by the Tennessee Small Business Development Center.
“They sat and analyzed our whole business and our numbers and pointed out things I didn't know about,” says Ms. Davis. “They really helped us out. I give them a lot of credit. That made a big difference for us.”
A runner up for multiple local business awards including the Chattanooga Chamber Small Business of the Year Award and the BBB’s Torch Business Award for business ethics, LearningRx has grown to serve approximately 100 students a year.
For Ms. Davis, now a board-certified cognitive specialist, COVID has only reminded her more of the importance of every single one of her employees.
“Our staff is the main piece of this. They work with the students. We really had to increase communication with the staff during the COVID lockdown. We had to change things and make sure we were really communicating with them. And, they had to change the way they have done things and they have been incredible through this. I think this is something that is very important. It’s not, ‘Oh, the staff will be fine.’ It’s important that you take care of them. They are really at the core of the business.”