Schooled: Inside D.C.’s oldest and only independent learning center

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BLACKJACK DEALING. Resume writing. Improve your life. Make more money. Become more attractive. Turn that great invention idea into reality. Heck, is that Sudoku puzzle too hard for you? There’s a class for that, too.

Washington’s source for educational seminars both serious and off-the-wall is First Class Inc., that business whose brochures are usually nestled between real estate flyers and job fair leaflets. But unlike buying a home or finding a new job, a class at First Class can change your life for a minimal investment or, at least, that’s the angle Debra Leopold’s banking on.

Leopold, 52, has helmed First Class Inc., since she founded it in 1984. She’s led her business through its fledgling stages (convincing former Washington Post columnist Bob Levey to hold a seminar) to its glory days (a former CIA agent’s class attracted worldwide press attention) and, most recently, a serious challenge (the Internet and free information). She’s watched her industry evolve and flounder, as independent learning centers across the country have folded and even many of industry giant Learning Annex’s schools have closed. And, the cynic says, why should it be any different? When the Web can teach you how to buy a house, start a business or fold an origami crane, why shell out for a class, even one that costs as little as $25 and two hours of time?

“It’s so hard to replicate the energy that happens in a live seminar,” Leopold says. She wears pink eye shadow and a rhinestone-speckled dress, and is almost unconscionably perky. She bakes chocolate chip cookies for her students to munch on before class. “You can get all the information from the Internet, but [the teacher] motivates you to do it. How would you get that on the Internet?”

It seems that at least some Washingtonians agree that in-person learning is still tops. Take one of First Class’ perennial favorites, the Passion Test. It’s based on a book, but some clearly prefer to listen to a lecture rather than buy (or borrow) the book: The class sells out every time it’s offered.

Other popular courses include anything hands-on: “Massage for Partners” is always popular. And in this economic climate, classes that promise wealth from a new career or side business fill the First Class course catalogs. “For a minimal investment of time and a minimal investment of money, you could really come away with a skill that will change your life,” she says, and then backtracks. “Could you find the skills needed to give you an edge? …I think so. For adults, it [one session] is usually enough. They don’t really need any more.”

Beginnings
In 1984, Leopold was working for an adult-education center called Open University, doing marketing, HR and design work, and taking their classes break dancing, bagel-making and so on. The school, like its contemporaries, was informal; a way to socialize rather than pick up a new skill. “It was very grassroots … very few people had an outline.” Classes were held in teachers’ basements. When Learning Annex bought Open U, Leopold realized she didn’t like the new owners, so she founded her own school.

Business grew. Classes as wide-ranging as How to Play 3-D Chess (a flop) and Making $100,000 a Year as a Private Eye (a success) peppered the course catalogs. Competitor the Learning Annex shut down in 1990, made a second attempt at breaking into the D.C. market in 1995, and shut down again in 1997. There was an incident when some of Leopold’s information boxes went missing. The Post reported Leopold said she had seen her boxes in use, with Learning Annex stickers on them, in New York City. The Learning Annex retaliated by claiming Leopold “took a box with her [to New York], took a picture and went home.”

Entrepreneurial Life
Days begin at 10 a.m. answering e-mails and taking registrations, and end at 9 p.m. when the night’s class ends. Since she’s there to let students in before and lock up afterward, Leopold ends up sitting in on the class, whatever it is. Recently she’s been auditing her more tech-y courses: “Make $100 a Day Using Your Blog and Free Internet Tools” was a recent one. That got her into social networking as a way to advertise her business.

“The challenge to me is marketing. …I don’t know when to stop,” Leopold said. “Every time I think I’ve caught up on every site out there to get the word out, two more crop up. … Maybe I don’t fully understand how the sites work.” It does sound like information overload, especially for a self-described poor delegator: She spends an hour and a half daily updating various sites. She’s registered on LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter and blogs on Blogspot. She posts on Craigslist and also uses Kijiji and Plurk, two sites of dubious value as yet. And her strategy of posting personal updates (“Digging Project Runway … was I a fashion designer in another life?”) and only sporadic class announcements is questionable, though for now it seems to be working. “My understanding is you’re not really supposed to market or advertise [on social network sites], but if it happens subliminally it’s OK,” she says. And “all of a sudden, new students were coming in the door. … All my classes last week were sold out, [and] they’re sold out this week.”

Business Tips
Say what you will about a cookie-baking, Facebook-doting woman; running a company almost single-handedly for a quarter-century requires some business savvy. One tip, free of charge: Master as much as you can, “so you’re not outsourcing all these things that just add to your overhead.” In addition to doing her own Internet marketing, Leopold is her own accountant, Webmaster, brochure designer and tech support line.

And, for now, business is good. Enrollment is bouncing back, Leopold has no local competitors, and her students, it seems, love her. When she e-mailed her student mailing list asking for success stories, responses flooded in. “First Class has changed my life.” “I’m doing exactly what I have always dreamed of.” “I could not be happier.” “First Class rocks!!!” It’s unclear how much of this goodwill was attributed to the $5 coupon code included in the mass mailing but, then again, isn’t that good business sense, too?

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