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Adventures in Transition

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can you remember March of 2020? Paul and Patsy Rabinowitz sure can.

The couple, who owns and operates West Chester Academy in Butler County, Ohio, had been successfully offering lessons in music, dance, gymnastics, musical theater, aerial silks, and more to hundreds of happy families since 2007. So successfully, in fact, that they expanded an astounding four times in eight years to accommodate their growing studio population and increased demand for their varied programs. As business owners, they had done everything right—an architect with a thriving office of his own, Paul was responsible for the design and construction of WCA’s state of the art 14,000 square foot building. A 45-year music teacher, Patsy served as president of the Ohio Music Teachers’ Association. 

The couple joined international association More Than Just Great Dancing!® along with a host of other professional organizations in order to elevate their small business to its highest potential. They even completed Mike Michalowicz’s Clockwork program and had just embarked on their reward trip: A glamorous eight-week excursion halfway across the world, starting in Australia.

Then COVID came to the United States.

“We intended to be gone in March and April as part of our Clockwork plan,” Patsy recalls. “We started to hear a little talk about the pandemic before we left but decided to move forward with our travel plans. We ended up having a wonderful time in Australia, but then, of course, with every passing day our itinerary started to change. Ports were closing, and our cruise line was scheduling new stops which were not on the original route. It became apparent that our trip was over when our return flight to the US was canceled! After a lot of scrambling, we finally got the last seats on a Qantas flight and headed for home.” 

The couple’s daughter had been overseeing daily operations at the academy while Paul and Patsy were traveling and had been in touch every day with updates. The situation seemed to be growing more dire by the hour, and West Chester Academy was forced to close their building on March 23.

Still recovering from grueling travel and fighting jet lag, the Rabinowitzes knew they had a historic problem to solve, and fast. There was no precedent for this situation, no proven model that they could follow. Fortunately, the two rely on each other to see both sides of an issue and innovate the best solution together. “The academy is all Patsy, I’m just her helper,” jokes Paul. And help he did—with Paul’s technical assistance, the music and dance departments at WCA didn’t miss a beat, making an immediate transition over to Zoom for classes on their regular schedule. 

“The music department was probably the least affected since so many of those lessons are private or semi-private already, and dance transitioned effortlessly once we had upgraded our Zoom account to the master level,” Patsy explains. “We held trainings with our staff by department to make sure everyone was confident with the technical aspects of online learning, and I’m proud to say that our teachers all made the adjustment smoothly.”

Slightly more daunting was the prospect of migrating WCA’s’s gymnastics and aerial silks programs over to a distance learning platform since these classes are largely dependent on specialized equipment and hands-on spotting from coaches—a no-no under CDC guidelines. In an effort to acknowledge the interruption in service continuity, Paul and Patsy held off charging gymnastics tuition in April, later weaving those classes back into the (online) schedule in May at a reduced length and a reduced charge. “MindBody’s platform was key in helping us stay flexible as far as offering different payment options, multi-class discounts, etc.,” says Patsy. “Their software really works for us.” 

WCA also adapted gymnastics classes to allow for one adult coach leading students in the foreground of a Zoom class with a junior coach demonstrating movements in the background, in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines. “Our gym coaches really operated with a skeleton crew,” explains Patsy.

Guiding the academy’s students and their families through the transition from in-studio to virtual classes, turned out to be just one piece of the puzzle. With so much uncertainty in the air, Paul and Patsy also knew how important it was to “take the temperature” of WCA’s 50+ instructors and staff, and that didn’t mean using a forehead thermometer. It meant listening to their people—tuning in to the way staff was feeling about staying home versus coming in and working remotely while wanting to stay connected at the same time. 

“Our staff was very happy to transfer over to a virtual platform and keep working. We had a few office staff coming in and out from time to time, and Patsy set up shop in her home office in our basement,” Paul says.

Paul n Patsy by reception desk

 

Later, once restrictions in their area began to lift, the couple sensed a mix of opinions among the staff on coming back into the building. “Some of our music instructors in particular are a little older, and I wanted them to feel safe returning. We had one or two instructors express that they preferred to stay remote well into the fall, and I’m happy that the academy is able to accommodate that,” Patsy says.

Making just one round of decisions at a time helped keep WCA from descending into chaos even while the rest of the world seemed to be falling apart. Recognizing that the need for clear and consistent communication was stronger than ever, Patsy established a rhythm of Monday updates for all clients so families knew what to expect and when to expect it. In addition, department-specific communications were sent out to keep all WCA families informed while they couldn’t physically be in the building. 

This connection was particularly important to the academy’s nine competition teams who were “very eager to get back into the studio,” according to Paul. Competition dancers’ unique needs were addressed through shorter and more focused online classes, as well as “stay strong” technique classes that were offered at no charge as make-up options for the time they missed in the studio.

As Ohio and the nation progressed toward reopening, Paul and Patsy once again needed to innovate. What would this next step look like for WCA? Ultimately, the combination of technology and time management yielded the perfect plan. Paul stepped up with a couple of game-changing pieces of tech: Futuristic, self-cleaning NanoSeptic wraps for high-touch areas like door handles, and the implementation of Spot TV, which gave parents access to a livestream of their child’s classroom while the academy’s physical lobby space remained closed.

In addition to the gadgetry, Patsy launched a thoughtfully timed reopening plan, staggering the return of the academy’s multiple populations with very clear language about who would be returning in which phase. The couple once again held training sessions with department heads to make sure everyone was “singing from the same songbook” with regard to reopening, and prepared to start cautiously with private lessons leading the way back into the studio space. “We were excited and thankful to see that things were beginning to open up everywhere,” says Patsy.

To finish the season, music students performed their end-of-season recitals virtually, and, at the time of this interview, dancers were preparing to resume rehearsals for their one-class-at-a-time performances. As luck would have it, Paul and Patsy had recently shifted their dance department to a year-round schedule to match their music and gymnastics programs. When they most needed to buy time, the couple benefited from a planned recital date which many studios might normally consider late—mid-July. 

With plenty of unknowns still on the horizon, studio owners of any discipline or demographic would do well to heed Patsy’s words of wisdom: “Find the ones who want to come and serve them. Do it as carefully as possible of course, but the reality is, the world has to open back up.”

West Chester Academy’s mission is helping students reach their highest potential, but it’s safe to say no one personified that motto during this crisis more than the owners themselves. Time seemed to stop back in March when the Rabinowitzes traded one eight-week adventure for another, but with their employees’ encouragement they’ll try again when the time is right. “Our staff was disappointed that they didn’t get to show us how they could rise to the occasion and handle things for eight weeks,” beams Patsy. “They only got three in, but they did a fabulous job for those three weeks. We just might be rescheduling that trip sooner than you think!”

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