Speaking in front of her Dartmouth after-school class, 30-year-old Wendy Birt radiates a passion for teaching and after launching her own little school, she’s living that dream.
“Teaching is in my blood,” she says. “I’ve always had a huge affection for my school teachers. I truly idolized them growing up.”
Birt is one of Halifax’s new breed of education entrepreneurs. After graduating in May 2013 with the President’s Prize, a 4.2 GPA and her Bachelor of Education from Mount Saint Vincent University, she found herself, like hundreds of others, limited to substitute teaching. That, Birt concedes, can be discouraging for an ambitious young person.
One gloomy February afternoon, after a day of elementary school supply teaching, Birt came up with her big idea. Instead of slogging through the usual teaching apprenticeship, she would channel that passion into founding her own after-school program. The name, Thrive (“THR!VE” on the logo) Education, came to her immediately.
Within a week, she developed a proposal for an after-school program serving children in grades 4 to 6. “Countless public school children,” she wrote, “slip through the cracks every single day, despite appearing to ‘get by’ in school… Great educators know that what children need is a sincere, deep and lasting relationship with a strong and attentive teacher-mentor: someone who will invest time, energy and heart into nurturing their individual interests and talents.”
Birt’s super-positive attitude has always made her stand out. Before and after graduating from the MSVU with her BA in 2005, she honed her public relations and fundraising skills as a special events and later development officer at the Halifax headquarters of the Salvation Army.
Thrive isn’t her first time getting an organization off the ground. Birt’s a talented singer and since 2007, has been a soloist in a variety of community bands, founding two different children’s choirs, the Bedford-based Full Gospel Youth Chorale, and the Spryfield Girls’ Chorale. She brought that same energy to Thrive
Armed with career counselling advice and a fairly sophisticated business plan, Wendy approached local businesses, private schools, and the public library system looking for partners. Scotiabank signed on as a corporate sponsor, but it became increasingly obvious that if she was going forward it would be on her own, utilizing all her entrepreneurial talents.
On September 11, 2014, she opened Thrive’s storefront location at Evergreen Place, Dartmouth, with a dozen initial students. For the $1,500 registration fee, kids were enrolled, two afternoons a week, for 10 weeks. Each week featured a special evening field trip. Two-thirds of the first class attended on corporate scholarships.
“Thrive Education is not just a weekly kids’ club program,” Birt says. “A Thrive child gains a wider perspective, discovers who they are, and what they can achieve.”
Seven of Birt’s public school teachers and two MSVU education faculty members, professors Bev Williams and Robert Berard, were among the 80 guests at the storefront school on Open House Day. “She’s exactly like she was,” said her Grade 6 teacher Judy MacIntosh, “driven to excel.” As Birt welcomes families with open arms, capturing the awe and imagination of the children, or zips around in her 2009 blue Kia emblazoned with Thrive Education colours and logo, it’s clear that she’s found her calling.