Craig Gehring didn’t pursue a college degree after he achieved perfect scores on both the ACT and SAT college entrance exams as a junior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School in 2003.
Instead, he tutored a girl who needed to score three more points on the ACT to qualify for a state college scholarship. That girl then improved her score by four points and, in Gehring’s words, “earned a free ride to the college of her choice.”
Gehring, 28, said last week that’s when he knew he wanted to help other students improve their test scores to pursue the variety of opportunities a college degree can provide.
“Once you do one, you’re hooked, for sure,” Gehring said.
But helping other students into college didn’t inspire Gehring to join them.
“At the time, I was just kind of ready to go out into the world,” Gehring said. “When you’re 18, you kind of think you know everything.”
So, Gehring earned money as a tutor and as a freelance website developer and marketer for several companies.
After a few years, Gehring recalled, he started Ring Marketing, a Google advertising partner.
“Ring Marketing was how I funded ACT Mastery,” Gehring said.
ACT Mastery is the tutoring program Gehring now sells through another of his companies.
A decade after his high school graduation, Gehring’s Baton Rouge ACT preparation company, MasteryPrep, is growing exponentially at the Louisiana Technology Park business incubator at 7117 Florida Blvd.
Two years ago, the company had two schools as customers, Gehring said. Eighteen months ago, the firm had three employees.
“Now, we’re serving over 400 schools across the country, including more than 100 in Louisiana,” Gehring said. His workforce has grown to 70.
“It’s been a bit of a rocket ride,” he said.
In addition to Louisiana, MasteryPrep now sells the ACT Mastery program to schools in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois and Arkansas.
The program includes a wide variety of content students will face on the ACT, as well as test-taking strategies, Gehring said.
“We’ll train their teachers, too,” he said. “We have instructors who have been trained here in Baton Rouge.”
Also available for sale to schools is an online app that enables students to use cellphones, laptops, desktops and iPads to access the ACT study program from off-campus locations after the school day, Gehring said.
“This semester, districts have purchased access for over 100,000 students,” he added.
Gehring would not disclose specific sales and profit figures for the privately held company.
Dale Petty, hired two months ago as MasteryPrep’s chief executive officer, noted this year’s sales are approaching a level that would be 10 times greater than the previous high-water mark.
Petty previously served as executive director for The Princeton Review, one of MasteryPrep’s top competitors.
Gehring said he previously added four other key staff members to “the amazing crew of individuals” who worked to build the firm’s customer base to more than 400 schools.
Jared Loftus became chief operating officer after successfully starting food truck and other businesses in Baton Rouge. Loftus also has served on the board of the Capital Area Transit System.
Charlie Davis spent 18 years building companies and nonprofit organizations before becoming chief operating officer at MasteryPrep.
Missy Crews is director of state programs for the company. She is a Baton Rouge native, a graduate of LSU’s College of Education and a former Miss Louisiana.
Gehring said Crews coordinates teacher implementation of the company’s ACT Mastery programming for Louisiana’s 65-school Supplemental Course Academy.
Danny Ryan, described by Gehring as “a gifted programmer and indispensable part of the MasteryPrep team,” is the company’s chief technology officer.
Ryan graduated from Baton Rouge Magnet High with a perfect ACT score in 2008. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in computer-science engineering from Princeton University.
“Craig knows what he’s good at, and he knows where he needs help,” said Stephen Loy, executive director at Louisiana Technology Park. “He’s brought in a good team. You see that in the outstanding performance of his company. None of his success has been due to luck.”
“We’ve been really focused on results for our students,” Gehring said. “We’ve experienced a lot of growth because of that. We’ve been able to meet a need.”
Gehring said his team isn’t targeting students attempting to achieve a perfect ACT score of 36. They’ve succeeded through efforts to help lower-scoring students average a gain of about three points.
“That can have a huge financial impact on a student,” Gehring explained.
Louisiana’s generous Taylor Opportunity Program for Students provides college scholarships to high school graduates who qualify.
What is the lowest ACT score that qualifies for a TOPS scholarship? That minimum is 20 points on the 36-point scale, Gehring said.
“The ACT is hugely important for students attempting to get into college,” Gehring added.
For high school graduates attempting to pay for an education at a technical school, a TOPS tech award is available for those scoring at least 17 on the ACT, Gehring noted.
“A few extra points on the ACT can be a life-changing event for a student,” Davis said.
Crews said she regularly visits Louisiana schools and witnesses “the excitement the students have when they realize they can get through this test.”
She added, “That’s a great thing for a student to see — an expanded picture of himself or herself.”
Gehring said he noticed the same reaction among his middle school and high school classmates whenever they asked for help in their studies.
“And they weren’t going for perfect scores,” Gehring recalled. “They wanted a 20. They wanted a TOPS.”
Gehring also recalled that his interest in education began with his experiences in the eighth-grade English class of Jane McBryde at Westdale Middle School.
“I wrote this crazy, anecdotal story about my grandfather’s dog, who had this hole in his tooth,” Gehring said. “She thought I was the greatest writer. She got me excited about education. I want to say ‘Thank you. Thank you very much, Ms. McBryde.’ ”
“This kind of makes my day,” said McBryde, now retired from teaching. “One of my all-time favorite students.”
McBryde said she remembered that dog story.
“We were all laughing in class,” she said. “He just had that gift. He was good at everything. He was like a sponge. He absorbed everything.”
Gehring and several of his Westdale classmates later brought her a ticket for their graduation ceremony at Baton Rouge Magnet High. She said that invitation was a great source of pride for her.
“I am just thrilled for him,” McBryde said.
Gehring said he is thrilled by each new success by MasteryPrep.
That includes Kentwood High School in Tangipahoa Parish, he said. Since using his educational program, Gehring said, the number of Kentwood students scoring 18 or higher on the ACT has doubled.
“This program is as simple and user-friendly as it possibly can be,” he said.