As a special-education teacher, Susan Fino is used to challenges. So when she decided to leave district employment and go into business for herself in 1986, she took the risks of entrepreneurship in stride. "I knew that the harder I worked, the more likely I was to see success," says Fino 6
Fino provides consulting and teaching services to several public-school districts in the Springfield, Massachusetts area. "I was really drawn to strategies for finding ways to make a child successful in the classroom. Typically, in the public schools as special-education teachers, we taught and supported subjects like math and reading, but I wanted to teach children how to learn, not just what to learn," says Fino,
"My job is going into the classroom and working with the teacher and student, putting together a program that ensures success for the student and teacher."
By contracting, schools are able to tap the expertise of Fino when and where they need her. That kind of flexibility enables schools to match their special-education programs to the students who use them. And in some cases, Fino helps schools avoid the more costly alternative of private placement for the most difficult to educate students.
A number of learning-disabled students attend private schools paid by the school district because the school district doesn't have the programs to serve those students, says Fino. Many times parents will bring up Fino's name as an adjunct to supportive services within the school system, she says.
"Schools trust me because I have worked with them before, and it's less costly than an outside placement," says Fino. Fino's hourly cost of $30 per student for two-on-one instruction is considerably lower compared to the cost of private placement, which can run up to $19,000 per year, says Fino.
"I keep a low profile (as a teacher in private practice). I would run up against opposition from teachers otherwise. They don't see me as someone in business for myself, they see me as helping teachers solve whatever problems they happen to have."
Fino, who shares a suite of offices with her psychologist husband, started the business with a $12,000 loan which she used to purchase equipment and create a brochure. Today, as a one-person business, she nets about the same as an experienced teacher, she says. Roughly half her revenues come from school districts; the remainder comes from parents who hire her to work with their learning-disabled children on an hourly basis.
Being in business for herself, Fino finds herself responding to certain incentives that were absent when she was employed by the district. "I have a great incentive to know what's going on in education. People are going to call on me for the information they don't have in the public schools. If I can get the information, I can share it with teachers and kids." Fino's independence enables her to attend conferences, workshops, and trade shows that enhance her professional development and her skills as a teacher. As a public-school teacher, professional opportunities were not as available to her, Fino says.
"In the public schools, given the economic climate of the times, it's difficult to go to conferences and especially to get equipment, such as computers and programs. Even though it's coming out of my own pocket, I know I need the equipment in order to survive. It's what makes me able to serve teachers and kids."