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  • | 10:00 a.m. May 9, 2014
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Elizabeth Garcia likes to plan 10 years in advance.

That helps explain why she's about to expand the early learning school she founded, Discovery Day Academy, with a $5 million building in Bonita Springs.

A native of Clewiston who grew up on the family cattle ranch, Garcia borrowed $50,000 from the First Bank in Clewiston by putting a second mortgage on her home to build her first Discovery Day Academy in the rural town in 2007. “We built it from scratch,” she says, noting the Clewiston school now has 110 students through kindergarten.

But big plans are in the works in Bonita Springs, where there are now 88 students through kindergarten in a 6,000-square-foot building. “We have a three-year waiting list,” says Garcia, 32. Already a fast-growing area of south Lee County, the school is located near the new global corporate headquarters Hertz is building here.

With financing from C1 Bank, Garcia hopes DeAngelis Diamond Construction Co. can complete a new building adjacent to her current facility by next summer. Once they move in, the school will begin offering classes through the fifth grade and eventually to eighth grade. “We're adding first grade this fall,” she says.

When it's completed, the new 22,000-square-foot building in Bonita Springs will accommodate another 292 students. The building will be furnished with the latest Steelcase furniture that promotes team-based learning and it will feature a media center, a garden where students can grow vegetables and a culinary center.

Annual tuition at the private school will range from $8,600 to $10,250 once the new building is completed, slightly higher than it is now. “I have considerable market share in this area,” says Garcia, who developed the early learning curriculum herself.

A former public school teacher who later earned an M.B.A. at the University of Miami, Garcia says she discovered that early learning is critical to establishing a base for the future grades. “We're a school, not a day care,” says Garcia, herself a mother with two young children ages 5 and 1.

Garcia says the school is profitable, but she's managed the growth conservatively. “I've always reinvested in the business,” she says. “I'm very efficient with the choices I make, but the one area I spend on is staff.”

Garcia says all her teachers have advanced degrees and the teacher-student ratio is at most 1-to-10 and considerably higher for much younger children. The key to keeping the school full is to ensure all the children are happy. The profit in education is always on the last few children, she notes. “There's something to be said for experience,” Garcia says. “You put quality in your staff.”

Although Garcia taught in public schools, she says private schools promote competition. “That entrepreneurship drives innovation,” she says, noting that financial literacy and entrepreneurship will be taught to students in the new school building.

Garcia owns Discovery Day Academy outright and for now plans to retain control of the company. “I've been approached numerous times to franchise,” she says. However, Garcia says she might be more receptive to a managing partnership arrangement for future expansion, a structure that would give her more control over the operations.

For now, Garcia is focused on the Bonita Springs expansion. “I have to see the vision to fruition here,” she says. “You need to show what the utopia looks like.”

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss


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