James Lee of Eagle, Colorado, has developed a unique way to funnel 30-40 public elementary-school kids right into his commercial school. So effective is his program that public-schools come to him year after year to do it again! Check out what he does differently and why it works.
Even though James Lee took his first karate lesson at the age of seven, he didn’t get past yellow belt until he was 13. No, it wasn’t because he was a slow learner. It was because he was moved from city to city as a child due to his parents’ work schedule. In spite of the moving around, he begged his parents to find a new martial arts school in each new city. According to him, he was so enthusiastic that he’d start his new classes before they even unpacked their boxed possessions!
At the age of 19, Lee was a brown belt and, in between enjoying the ski slopes, he continued to practice with the goal of going back to Louisiana to earn his black belt. Then, his plan was to return to the renowned ski resort town of Vail, CO, to teach martial arts. He accomplished that goal in 1997.
He started out with no capital investment. All he had was a single kicking shield he’d brought with him from Louisiana — and a dream: The dream of living in Vail, having the freedom to snowboard everyday while teaching karate as a full-time career.
Lee chose Eagle because it was more of a family community suitable for a martial arts studio, rather than a tourist destination like Vail. He was still working as a chef during the day, but he had his heart set on teaching karate full-time.
Over the course of the first five years, James Lee Karate grew rapidly. He rented out more of the space above the dance studio and began to broaden his visibility and reputation in the community. To that objective, he held summer camps and after-school programs at the local elementary schools.
Lee says he grew so much that he tore down walls and expanded his location three times, occupying four of the six upstairs units. In 2001, after lots of negotiating, he moved the school to a more centrally located, 3,500 square foot building in the heart of downtown Eagle.
Today, that school is packed with karate students from five years old and up, and he also has a second school in Glenwood Springs, about a 35-minute drive to the west.
Lee’s main Eagle location averages between 140–170 students, with the summer months being a little slower. His Glenwood Springs location averages between 80–100 students.
He personally teaches up to six classes a day with the help of just one black belt, a teenager who has been with him since the age of nine. Lee’s wife, Amanda, helps run the school. He says she’s “the backbone of all the administration, design work, all the important stuff.” Together, they have four teenage children and make time for boating, camping and skiing.
Dean Sarver, one of his other black belts, runs the second location. Students at one location can train at either facility at no additional charge.
Conversely, his elementary school-age enrollment is constantly going and growing. Lee says the “bloodline” of both locations is the public elementary school character development program he has developed.
Eagle is a small community with only about 8,500 people. There are just four elementary schools in the immediate area. But all of them regularly call Lee to see when he can come to their campuses to conduct his program.
What is it in his program that has physical education teachers and even school principals begging Lee to come in? It’s the emphasis he places on character-building and how it all ties into a fundraiser for the school itself. He teaches respect, manners and goal-setting in a fun and exciting lesson that he shares with the kids. He does it in a non-threatening, enjoyable manner to keep them excited to learn more.
But it’s not just his teaching of life skills to kids that makes the public schools love Lee’s program. He explains it in just one sentence.
“I don’t charge for my teaching,” he says. “In fact, I make sure it actually turns into a financial benefit for the school.”
He does charge the students’ parents $20 for the after-school classes. But the checks are made out directly to the public school. The school then applies the money toward its physical education department or wherever else the administration chooses.
Lee also donates his time as well as things like trophies, medallions and all support materials.
Lee then moves to Phase 2 of his approach. He returns to the public school to offer his after-school program. He’ll teach six more lessons in the gym, where the children now learn some basic martial arts moves plus the assignment of the day.
“We make it a contest,” he explains. “Each child earns points by doing an assignment, like showing more respect to teachers and classmates in school. Or by practicing ‘self-discipline;’: that is, doing chores at home without being told.”
They can even earn extra points for doing things that aren’t on his assignment handouts, such as having the neatest handwriting or doing random acts of kindness.
Lee says that, out of the over 350 students in the entire public school, he’ll only have room for about 60 students in his after-school program. The first 60 to bring back the registration form and the $20 school donation will get into the program. He says they almost always fill up the program in the first day or two.
At the end of the after-school classes, Lee brings out a four-foot-tall trophy and a championship medallion. He explains to the kids how those with ‘ultimate focus and good manners’ will win that trophy and medallion.
Then, Lee invites the students, parents and friends to the “graduation ceremony” at his martial arts school.
At this juncture, Lee offers a $99 monthly package. He waives the usual $200 start-up fee, and gives out a free uniform, team t-shirt, and assignment sheets for the skill stripes new students will earn. He also guarantees the parents that tuition will stay at $99 a month for the basic beginner program, instead of increasing to the usual $149.
Each graduation ceremony generates a new student enrollment of 30 or 40 children. Lee has designed his basic beginner’s program with a fun, excitement-oriented curriculum.
He admits it is a shortened curriculum — just eight stripes on a white belt. But he says the 16-month program is a great introduction into his more comprehensive Black Belt Club. The students must be invited into that program.
Many in the basic program want to upgrade right away, but Lee makes them wait for that invitation.
Lee has some simple advice for newer martial arts school owners trying to break into the public school system.
“Do it because you love it,” he says bluntly. “Don’t be afraid to go into a public school and show them what you can do for them. Then, of course, you have to then deliver the results.
“Sometimes, it’s just as easy as walking through the front door and asking to meet with the PE coach,” he explains. “Once you get the coach excited about what you can do for the students—and especially the fundraiser part—they will sell the principle on the idea for you.
“Once the school staff, students and parents see what you can do — and that you really care about them — they will want to be part of your circle,” James Lee concludes.
That’s why he continues to be in demand at each of the public elementary schools in his area.
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