Science and math educational programs normally attract a certain kind of child, often left-brain focused. Education enrichment program Challenge Island aims to attract every child to learn more about S.T.E.A.M (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Education.
The participating children join a “tribe” and are divided into islands where they tackle challenges using only the materials in their treasure chests. The children dress up with headbands and face paint and get to work. The curriculum includes chemistry, geometry, engineering, music and more for each child to get a well-rounded yet flexible education.
“Our current educational system and the intense societal pressure to succeed has taken away the joy and magic of learning for today’s children,” says Sharon Estroff, CEO of Challenge Island. “What’s more, many digital native kids are not developing their imaginations and creative skills as children of previous generations did. They don’t know how to work together.”
An award-winning educator with two decades of experience in Atlanta public and private schools and a mom to four kids, Estroff came up with the idea for the company in the wee hours of the morning before testing it on her students — and her own kids. Now Challenge Island has grown to 60 franchises, with parents, teachers, and community leaders applying it at afterschool classes, in-school field trips, camps, and birthday parties.
Estroff talks to Hype about how Challenge Island stands out from the rest of early child education programs, the one time she almost lost her brand, and how she’s fostering S.T.E.A.M specifically among minority and female students.
What is your current role?
I am the CEO of Challenge Island Global and work very closely with both corporate staff and individual Challenge Island franchisees as they grow their local businesses and build the brand. I personally create the Challenge Island curriculum and serve as the visionary for our direction, growth, and development. I continue to run my local Challenge Island business in the Sandy Springs/Marietta area.
I am the co-author of the upcoming Challenge Island book series that turns the Challenge Island curriculum into an exciting and educational story. I speak frequently to parenting audiences and have presented to scores of communities nationwide.
How did you get started with Challenge Island? When/how did the idea come to you?
I had recently given birth to my fourth child and the endless late night feedings had turned me into a bit of a junkie for a certain reality TV show. During a 3 AM epiphany, I came up with the idea of dividing my second grade students into tribes and letting them work together to tackle action packed challenges using only the materials in their treasure chests and their creativity. I would later discover these were actually STEAM engineering challenges, but back then STEM – and certainly not STEAM – had yet to become a buzzword. The following year, I left the classroom and took Challenge Island into its current mobile business model. Within a few months I had quintupled my teaching salary and my business what growing by leaps and bounds. I began franchising Challenge Island in 2013 and have grown to over 60 locations worldwide.
Fourteen years ago, STEM wasn’t as much of a buzzword as it is nowadays. How was your experience as an early pioneer in this field?
Challenge Island has always been STEM and STEAM, but I certainly didn’t realize that when I created the program. At the time, I called it a program that built higher level and creative thinking skills in kids. As STEM and now STEAM have become part of the educational lexicon, I have highlighted and further developed those elements of the program. What’s more, I have ensured that our market remains strong by keeping my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in STEM and STEAM education and continually updating and tweaking the program and direction so we stay ahead of the 8 ball.
What sets you apart from other STEM education curricula programs?
Much of STEM today is based on Lego, robotics, and coding-focused curriculum. While this is all well and good, it tends to attract a certain kid (boys, left-brained) and builds a limited set of skills within a narrow subject range.
Challenge Island is a cross-curricular approach to STEM/STEAM with a focus on developing critical 21 century skills. From chemistry to art, engineering to music, and geometry to mythology, the “island” format allows for enormous flexibility in offering cross-curricular STEAM experiences developing communication, collaboration, and flexible thinking skills in children (boys, girls, left-brained, right-brained, big kids, little kids). Wrapped in whimsical trimmings (headbands, face paint, and the beat of the tribal drum), a sense of anticipation fills the air as kids enter new worlds of adventure and imagination through the program.
What is your revenue model?
At the franchise level, our owners run their own mobile businesses that go where they children are. We provide on-site STEAM challenge programming to children 4-14 in the form of after school classes, in-school workshops, outsourced STEAM curriculum, camps, birthday parties, family fun nights, scout events and much more. Our newest initiative, Challenge Island Senior, brings the same STEAM programming into assisted living centers and senior communities.
On the franchisor level, our franchisees purchase protected territories in the form of contiguous zip codes that comprise at least 25 elementary schools. They receive everything they need to run their own Challenge Island businesses in their protected areas. The franchise currently costs $40K for a single territory and franchisees pay 7 percent royalties on their sales.
What were your biggest successes or best “AHA” moment?
One of the schools where I do Challenge Island is a particularly high pressure environment. It boasts sky-high standardized test scores and well trained students. When I first began running classes there on Thursday afternoons, Challenge Island’s free-thinking, student-driven approach made the students nervous. “Where are the instructions?” “Is it okay to do it this way?” they’d ask. By the third week, however, their hesitancy and apprehension had disappeared; they were jumping into the challenges and blazing their own creative trails. The following semester we added a Friday afternoon class at that school. While the Thursday kids (most of whom were repeat customers) were off and running from day 1, the Friday kids started out asking the same questions. The contrast between the two groups confirmed to me that Challenge Island is making a true difference for children.
What was your biggest challenge or obstacle?
In 2012, a large franchising company acquired the Challenge Island concept from me. They promised me the moon and back and and being a teacher with essentially no understanding of franchising, I was eager to go along with them. It didn’t take long before I realized that they didn’t want me around much at all and had their own plans for Challenge Island. Fortunately in 2015, the stars aligned and I was able to buy back the Challenge Island concept and franchise system. Getting back Challenge Island from a publicly traded company with endless money to pour into legal fees was truly a David vs. Goliath battle but now 1.5 years later and 60 franchises strong, there is no doubt who has won that battle.
Do you think it’s important for female and diverse students to be exposed to STEM education and how are you fostering this?
An executive at the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta once told me that Challenge Island is “the most Girl Friendly STEM program” she has ever seen. Indeed, we have more girls signing up for our classes than boys in many areas. We also are very much embraced by non-profit organizations that serve at-risk, under-privileged, and special needs youth. Kids who are already checked out of school or are struggling with learning feel successful with Challenge Island. In addition to STEAM, they love our focus on 21st century skills which will carry these children from the playground to the boardroom. We receive a good amount of funding and grants as result of our ability to bring STEM/STEAM to ever kind of kid.
How does Atlanta weave into your story?
Every Challenge Island franchisee comes to Atlanta to train and visits the classes in my personal schools for hands-on learning. We now have 5 other franchises in the Atlanta area. I love the comradery of my Atlanta-based franchisees and I love seeing them further our reach across the region!
What’s next for Challenge Island?
We are so excited about our upcoming Challenge Island book series which will bring the STEAM adventures of Challenge Island into a story format. The manuscript for the first book is written and we are about to begin the process of finding a publisher who shares our vision. We know how excited the schools, franchisees and children will be about this new addition. And of course we expect to see continued growth. Now at 60 franchises, we expect to add another 20 to 2 by the end of the year and to be at 300 franchises by 2020. We will continue to grow and blossom with the STEM/STEAM market and beyond.