School Zone hasn’t had to work too hard to position itself as an authentic voice in the educational product space…because its origin story is almost script-perfect for a company hoping to catch the eye of both professional educators and concerned parents.
"My mom started the company 37 years ago. She was a teacher," School Zone president Jonathan Hoffman tells Co.Create. "And my father had a PhD in education. He taught reading and also taught teachers how to teach at Michigan State. Eventually they got out of institutional teaching and started rolling out products for teachers."
These included traditional workbooks and flash cards, products meant to adorn the cubbies and bookshelves of Pre-K to first grade classrooms. But a little blind luck took School Zone out of the education specialty store track and thrust them into the broader consumer market.
"The irony is that we never really got the teacher market because in 1982 this guy named Sam Walton said he wanted to put a School Zone section into every one of his stores," says Hoffman. "And my parents said, ‘Great! What’s a Wal-Mart?’ So we accidentally went into the mass market toy arena."
Of course, luck will only take you so far. Hoffman, as well as School Zone managing director Barbara Peacock, both attribute the company’s longevity to its staunch commitment to staying true to their singular vision ("We’ve seen a lot of people fade, but we’re still surviving," says Hoffman)—which made its decision last year to end the tablet field a little surprising. At least to those outside of School Zone.
Hoffman and Peacock had been working with Apple since 1995, when School Zone’s Alphabet Express software took home a Design Excellence award at that year’s Game Developers Conference. The two companies shared a singular marketing focus: "Apple always wanted the mom market, and that’s why we were interesting to them," says Hoffman. And School Zone learned from Apple, too. "I think what we did pull from Apple was that they were all about getting education into the hands of the consumers, right?" says Peacock. "Even with the Newton, way back then, Apple was getting education into the right people’s hands. So for us, that’s exactly what we want to continue to do."
Last year, School Zone released the Little Scholar tablet, which came pre-loaded with over 70 apps, games, and videos. It seems like a radical departure for a company built on pencil shavings and chalkboards, but Hoffman insists the idea has been brewing for years.
"We met with Barnes & Noble and we talked to the Nook team and we said, ‘Look we’ve got like 90 products why don’t you just make a children’s Nook?’ But they passed," says Hoffman. "And then we met with Kindle and we said, ‘Why don’t you do something with a children’s Kindle?’ and they passed….so we decided, you know what? We’ve got the important thing. To make the analogy of an aquarium: we’ve got the fish and everybody else has the vessel. We’ve got the hard part. The easy part is to make a tablet."
The new digital distribution model also allowed School Zone to rebrand itself as an original content creator, fulfilling a secret dream the company has been quietly nurturing for decades. The Little Scholar Mini—a 7-inch version of the original Little Scholar tablet that just bowed this year—will feature episodes of an original series called Charlie & Company.
"We’ve always wanted to do children’s television – the one platform we hadn’t done," says Peacock. "So when we started doing this tablet, we realized we didn’t have a video series. So we thought, 'let’s make one!'"
From establishing a core curriculum of sorts—School Zone has mandated that its products take the guess work out of early home education for parents by clearly outlining appropriate content for Pre-K through first—to making incremental inroads in the tech space, School Zone has quietly updated and in some ways reinvented itself in extremely quiet fashion.
"We’re like the Tortoise and the Hare," says Peacock. "We’re slow and steady and we’re here to win the race."