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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chet Linton is CEO and president of School Improvement Network of Midvale, whose offices are in a remodeled former bowling alley and a former Safeway next door. The company supplies online and on demand videos and other materials to help teachers improve their performance in the classroom.
A Utah CEO’s passion for education turns into big business

School Improvement Networks’ online best-practice videos are a hit in schools.

First Published Oct 12 2012 05:59 pm • Last Updated Jan 14 2013 11:32 pm

Chet Linton is passionate about teachers, and they seem to feel the same way about the training products his surging Utah company markets to schools.

At a recent press conference announcing a business/education initiative to improve education in Utah, Linton choked up during his presentation when he got to the part about teachers.

At a glance

School Improvement Network

1991 » Company founded by the Lintons to offer videotapes of good teachers at work

1999 » An early online presence takes shape

2006 » Company adopts aggressive growth strategy, launching PD 360, as an entirely online, on-demand service

2010 » Owners bring in equity capital and founders John and Blanch Linton retire

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"I’m not an educator, I’m a crazy entrepreneur who gets a little passionate," said Linton, CEO of the School Improvement Network of Midvale. "We need to help them be effective."

It’s that fire, plus management savvy and good strategic timing, that have propelled Linton’s company to the forefront in delivering teacher professional development materials to schools around the country.

School Improvement Network’s sales of professional development videos and materials have skyrocketed since 2006, when the company made the switch from DVDs to delivering the company’s videos and other materials online, on-demand and over any high-speed Internet connection. Linton said schools representing almost 900,000 U.S. teachers, a bit less than a third of the nation’s total, have bought subscriptions.

"Our goal was to turn the market on its ear," Linton said in an interview at the company’s Midvale offices, in a remodeled bowling alley that is next door to a former Safeway that the company also occupies.

School Improvement Network’s greatest asset is the 3,000 or so videos of education experts and actual classroom footage from teachers recognized for effective teaching methods. They have been gathered since the company was founded in 1991 by Linton’s parents, John and Blanch, Jordan School District teachers who first named it the Video Journal of Education.

John Linton also had a background in video and film, and had done work in those mediums for the state. Motivated by frustrations with his own teaching experiences and inspired from a visit to an Oregon school, he had the idea of creating a "quality teacher series" by filming the best teachers at work in their classrooms, said Chet Linton.

With Chet Linton and his wife on board, the company launched and its videos also began to include sessions with education experts and best-selling authors, covering what teaching practices work best in the classroom.

The company’s products were originally based on VHS videotapes, the dominant portable media of that time, and later DVDs. There were drawbacks, though.

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Chet Linton recalls that he " would have superintendents come up to me at different meetings and say, ‘I got every one of your products in my office.’ Of course, I’m thinking, ‘Great, how many teachers are going to go to the superintendent and [ask for] that video on how to discipline [a] classroom more effectively?’ "

The key was to figure out how to reach the end customer more directly. As early as 1999, School Improvement Network has had an online presence but video streaming was slow and the quality was low. In addition, many schools were not wired for Internet access or had slow connections that made streaming impractical.

The challenge was "how do we get something on every teacher’s desk, how do we change practices and help kids really improve and help teachers believe they can do it," Chet Linton said,

Fast-forward to 2006, when a confluence of events changed everything.

At one of its meetings, the company’s directors were asked to discuss whether School Improvement Network would remain what Linton calls a "lifestyle company," a small (25 to 30 employees), family-run affair like it had been since its founding.

"I got up and said, ‘OK, what do we want to do?’ " Linton recalls. "Do we want to build a great business or do we just want to sell this thing."

The Lintons, including two of Chet’s brothers — one a graduate of Columbia business school, the other the University of Southern California film school — decided they needed to build the business, even if they eventually sold it.

That same year, with changes in technology and in education — better streaming technology, faster speeds and such initiatives as No Child Left Behind — the company realized that it needed a more flexible product format.

By the end of 2006, School Improvement Network had used its library of videos to create its PD 360 (PD for professional development), an online service available 24 hours a day. But it also streamlined the videos and other materials so they could be flexible enough to meet different school’s objectives and the needs of individual teachers. The company also included follow-up questionnaires to help teachers and administrators apply the lessons to actual classrooms.

Teachers and others say that PD 360 has made a positive difference in how they work.

Pamela Johnson, a nationally certified sixth-grade teacher at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake, said she finds the convenience of being able to watch the videos at home attractive. But she also said the content is targeted to a variety of specific areas where teachers might seek help.

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