Leadership ProfileMarch/April 2021Women in FranchisingWomen in Franchising Article

Leadership Profile: Lenka Whitehead, Oxford Learning Centres

A Love for Learning

Oxford Learning Centres president Lenka Whitehead shares the inspiring story of how she found more than tutoring services for her son at Oxford

By Roma Ihnatowycz

Sometimes the stars align in the most unexpected of ways. When Lenka Whitehead signed her young son up for help at Oxford Learning Centres almost 30 years ago, little did she know she would set in motion a series of life-altering developments. Not only did that fateful decision help her son excel at school and go on to pursue a successful athletic career, but it also prompted Whitehead to join the company and help turn it into the powerful brand it is today.

The cherry on the cake? Whitehead also found love, eventually marrying Oxford Learning founder Nick Whitehead, and watching proudly as four of their combined children went on to join the company as adults. One could say it’s been the perfect mix of personal and professional fulfilment.

“I’ve always loved business, and then when I discovered my passion for helping kids, I wanted to get involved,” says Whitehead, the company’s current president. “For me, my work with Oxford Learning is all about making a difference in the world and making a difference in how kids learn. This is especially important to me because of the learning experience I had with my own son.”

Whitehead was a young woman with a successful real estate business when she first walked into the Oxford Learning Centre in London, Ontario, with her son in tow. Impressed with its teaching methods, she signed him up for an assessment right away. To her surprise, the assessment showed that her son’s struggles in school were rooted in a condition called central auditory processing deficiency, or CAPD.

For Whitehead, this news provided a welcome moment of clarity that allowed her to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. “I learned he just had to be taught to listen in a different way and process information differently,” she says.

The program her son went on to take at Oxford helped him to develop the tools he needed to learn and listen more effectively. An Oxford expert also accompanied him to school to explain his CAPD to teachers and show them how it impacts his learning and how they could help.

“My son went on to finish university with honours, play varsity sports, and become an elite athlete playing rugby for Canada,” says Whitehead, adding that he now owns five Oxford Learning Centres himself. “He wouldn’t have done any of that if it hadn’t been for Oxford. The difference was palpable – I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Addressing a need

Oxford Learning was started in the ‘80s when Nick Whitehead, then researching new teaching and learning methods, discovered that not all children learned alike. While developing learning plans for First Nations children, it became increasingly clear to him that some learned differently from others and could benefit from acquiring better critical thinking skills.

Armed with this knowledge, Nick decided to launch an after-school counselling business that would help children develop better cognitive skills and teach them how to learn and study more effectively. In consultation with experts from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, he established the framework for Oxford Learning and opened his first centre in London, Ontario in 1984.

Nick opened the first Oxford Learning franchise in Burlington, Ontario in 1991. The decision to franchise set in motion a growth spurt that would see the company expand rapidly over the next two decades, often through word of mouth by happy, satisfied parents. At the time of writing, there are 127 Oxford Learning Centres spread out across seven provinces, with three more as of now set to open in 2021, as well as 25 locations in the U.S. (under the brand name GradePower Learning), and a handful more in Bermuda and the Middle East.

Lenka Whitehead’s involvement with the company was gradual, and initially involved handling the leasing for new locations through her real estate business. But the positive impact the cognitive development programs had on her son at the time made such an impression that in 1996, she decided to join the company full time. “I discovered my passion for helping kids, and I wanted to bring my business experience to the equation to help raise awareness for the concept,” she says.

Whitehead went on to help build Oxford Learning into a significant Canadian franchise brand and a leader in the field of after-school tutoring. She now heads the entire operation – Nick retired four years ago – working with a staff of about 30 out of the company’s London head office, her children among them. Oxford’s success, she says, lies in the fact that its learning model combines thinking and cognitive skill development with academic teaching in traditional subjects like math, English, and science. With customized programs, students develop better learning skills, improve their reading comprehension and math skills through individualized instruction, and develop the study habits they need to excel scholastically.

The brand’s specialized programs cover age groups ranging from pre-schooler all the way through to the end of high-school level. College and university readiness programs will be released this year, as the pandemic created a gap in learning for students currently in high school. “We need to help these young people get prepared for what they need to tackle next. They missed huge chunks of school over the past year and that will have a huge effect on how they manage their future,” says Whitehead.

Each centre has an in-house education director and/or coordinator, as well as a group of instructors. Most are certified teachers, while the remainder are experts in their respective fields, with subject-relevant degrees. Regardless of credentials, all instructors are trained in Oxford methodology, and the training is ongoing.

The most important credential Oxford Learning franchisees bring to the table, says Whitehead, is a genuine desire to help children, with a passion in their mission. Most are women – often with an education background – and many have experience working at an existing Oxford Learning location. It’s that experience that usually leads them to buy their own franchise, something Whitehead views as a testament to the brand’s business success as well as its enjoyable work atmosphere. Equally rewarding for Whitehead is the role the brand plays in helping women launch and build their own successful business.

COVID-19 consequences

Like many franchise brands, Oxford Learning has not been immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding ramifications. Business slowed significantly across all locations at the start of the outbreak last spring, but most centres are now experiencing month-on-month growth. Whitehead sees sales returning to normal levels by mid-year, barring any new, unforeseen developments.

Most centres have successfully pivoted to the “new normal,” introducing heightened cleaning protocols, social distancing, mask-wearing, and plexiglass barriers to their learning spaces. They also intensified their virtual learning component – moving around 50 per cent of their business online – and set up learning pods in their centres for small group learning to help parents struggling with teaching their children at home.

Supplemental education companies like Oxford Learning stand to play a pivotal role in the aftermath of the pandemic, says Whitehead, when children will find themselves facing the arduous uphill battle of catching up on the learning they missed during multiple lockdowns. For those with learning challenges, the impact could be catastrophic. “There is going to be a huge fallout in the next few years, with kids struggling more than ever,” Whitehead explains. “Imagine what it will be like for those children who were already behind?”

To address this looming concern, Whitehead is organizing a coalition of tutoring companies with the aim of working with the government to help bring students up to standard. Tutoring, she says, will gain an importance in the strange new world we live in, especially in the foreseeable future, and research shows there are inherent advantages to tutoring. She points to a recent piece in Scientific American, which outlines how tutoring adapts better to the virtual learning model than traditional multi-student online classes, yielding more promising outcomes.  

For Whitehead, these are all positive indicators – not just for the future business potential of Oxford Learning, but for her own personal fulfilment in helping children bounce back scholastically and reach their highest potential.