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Margo Haak works with student Rylie Kaiser

Margo Haak works with student Rylie Kaiser in the Billings Educational Academy in 2013. The small nonprofit academy is tailored to students who have struggled in public school. 

See that group of kids out cleaning up a stretch of highway on a Saturday? They’re doing their homework.

You may see the same kids volunteering at the rescue mission or helping at a nursing home or with the Special Olympics.

The students attend the Billings Educational Academy, a small, affordable private school that caters to young people who have struggled in public school.

“Our curriculum emphasizes community involvement,” said the school’s director, Margo Haak.

Haak spent decades teaching in public school, where she saw some students “fall through the cracks.”

“I felt there had to be a different way to reach them,” she said.

The Billings Educational Academy is at 1212 Central Ave. and may be reached at 248-4031. Here’s what else Haak had to say about the school and why she started it:

Nature of the business?

We are a nontraditional alternative to public school. The students here have difficulty functioning in a regular classroom setting, for one reason or another. They are all extremely bright, but they have different learning styles or disabilities. Seventy to 80 percent of the students have some form of autism.

Why start the business?

I have always wanted to run my own school, so in 2001, I decided to give it a try.

Where did the startup funding come from?

Actually, there was no startup funding. The school has always run on tuition.

How long have you been in business?

The school has been in operation for more than 11 years. Unfortunately, most people don't know we exist because of the high cost of advertising.

Your biggest challenge?

Finances. Getting by on tuition only has been difficult. Putting students’ needs first and daily overhead consumes the majority of the money, so there is nothing left for any salaries.

What was done to overcome those challenges?

We decided to become a nonprofit in 2009. Funding is still a challenge, as it is with most nonprofits. We have received a few donations and are currently working on several grants. We did receive a generous donation from one of our now-deceased English teachers. That money is specifically designated to buy or build a new school. We are still in the process of finding a building that suits our students’ needs.

What is being done to expand the business?

We are searching for a new building to allow for more students. We have talked to a variety of businesses and civic groups in Billings to see if anyone can offer any advice or assistance. We also participate in the yearly Family Expo, which has been very successful in acquiring new students and volunteers.

Your best business decision?

Becoming nonprofit has allowed us to apply for grants and has made the donation process easier. It also alleviated some financial pressures. Another good business decision was to involve the RSVP program in our school. We have been blessed with such incredible volunteers from that agency.

Your worst business mistake?

Not having startup capital. I went into business with my heart and not a sound business plan, trusting that the strength of my belief in what I was doing would see me through.

What advice do you have for someone running a business?

Take advantage of the opportunities offered by others who believe as you do. Use their experience and wisdom to accomplish your goals. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Number of workers?

I am the only full-time person at the school. We have 11 professionals who teach here — all volunteers who believe in our philosophy. Seven are from RSVP. Since all operating costs are covered by tuition, there is no extra funding for any salaries, myself included. My husband also works at the school, teaching art, German and guitar.

What is your five-year plan for the business?

The Montana State University Billings business students wrote up a very effective five-year business plan for us. We have been trying to follow all their recommendations. The number-one priority is to acquire a new building to accommodate more students. Once we own our own building, the money now used to pay rent can go toward equipment for students and salaries.

A question you would ask other entrepreneurs?

As a fellow nonprofit, what do you do to achieve your financial goals?

If you weren't doing what you are now, what would be your dream job?

This is my dream job. I can't imagine doing anything else. These kids are my life. Going to work every day isn't work ... it is a blessing.