Mats help kids learn while they eat
It all began with Dara Lopata, a trip to Office Max and a maiden voyage on the laminator. Now, she’s a mom with a booming small business.
Advanced Placemats was not intended to become what it is today, an online store that offers various study mats for students to utilize during meals. The study guides are created by high achieving students for students who wish to follow in their footsteps, but behind every "A+" student is an "A+" mom.
After watching her sons tirelessly study with their peers, she sought out a way to stay ahead of the curve. She took the curriculum her sons and their study group struggled with and put it on a placemat, hiding study time in plain sight.
As her sons sought out a more rigorous curriculum, so did the placemats. Each placemat is the result of hard work from students, teachers and tutors. Now, she has created over fifty different placemats ranging in subjects from calculus to world history.
The placemats — Lopata and her staff call them study guides — contain all the information simplified in an easy-to-read format. Lopata looked to her sons’ peers as employees, all high achieving students that were being accepted into some of the most prestigious universities and colleges in the nation.
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From her office and home in Phoenix, Lopata has launched a small battalion of driven young people, all college underclassmen, to help her in her mission.
Advanced Placemats are written and edited by students who have excelled at the tests for those who wish to do the same. Each Advanced Placemat is edited by a subject expert and formatted into its final placemat form through Lopata’s vetting process. By the time the mat is finished, it has passed through the hands of excelling students and certified Advanced Placement teachers to ensure all the necessary content is covered.
Conner Waslo, a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, is one of the content creators.
“After taking the class, I read through the textbook before making an outline of that content plus what we saw on AP mock exams," Waslo said. “Being a part of the team is awesome. I love knowing that my studying is helping another student ace the AP test.”
Maddie Nowaczyk, a sophomore at the University of Arizona Honors College, is the advertising coordinator for Advanced Placemats at only 19 years old.
“Honestly it doesn’t feel like I’m working with young people. Everyone that Dara chooses to work with at Advanced Placemats is very driven,” Nowaczyk said. “By having this work experience at a young age really helps us prepare for the real world.”
It’s all right there under the student’s nose, which Lopata took literally.
When her sons were enrolled in BASIS Phoenix, the kids would come over to do their homework together every Saturday. She noticed the dynamic way the kids were able to teach each other. One child who was gifted in math but weak in chemistry would help their friend who was good at chemistry in exchange for some math help. They were self-made study guides themselves.
Seeing the large amounts of content her sons and their peers set out to conquer, Lopata began making placemats that doubled as study guides.
“I would just photocopy stuff and laminated it because they were bunch of kids over here eating things like pizza, grilled cheese, so they have greasy hands,” Lopata said.
Lopata took her placemat idea and made it into a sellable product.
“The stores weren’t providing the product that I wanted, so I just went and made it myself,” Lopata said, sitting in her office, a child safety gate guarding the entrance.
The idea for advanced placemats is simple: if you have time to eat, you have time to study. Lopata looked at the subjects the Saturday study club were focusing on and then created placemats covered with curriculum. Now, she is the owner of a self-made small business, not to mention a full-time mom.
“It’s funny, I think my family forgets and I sit in my office like, ‘Ok, I’m being a professional on this side of the gate,'” Lopata said after her husband ran in to give her a kiss good morning on his way to work in the yard.
Inside the dark wooden desk in her office, Lopata hangs pictures of her business role models; powerful female business owners such as Alli Webb from Drybar and Sara Blakely, owner of Spanx, are just two of the innovators Lopata admires.
Lopata keeps her nose to the ground when it comes to education fairness in this nation. She herself said her entire life revolves around her children’s academics. Not all children have that level of support.
“It’s not about selling, it’s about giving back. That's my end game,” Lopata said.
At first Advanced Placemats were meant to help the small group of students that came over every Saturday, but Lopata realized that her product could do a whole lot of good for kids around the country. The “buy one give one” program through Advanced Placemats allows for customers to donate a placemat to a child at the Title 1 school of their choice.
Although Advanced Placement testing has been talked about as an equalizer in education, the gaps in opportunities are beginning to widen in low income areas, said Lopata. In some cases, the AP program can unknowingly cause inequality due to lack of support in all schools that house College Board curriculum. The result eventually reinforces that status quo: students at well-funded schools do well, students at less well-funded schools struggle.
“If somebody said to me, ‘I could give you whatever you want for this,’ you know what I’d say? I want to meet with the people from the College Board because I want to find out which schools have the support system for AP classes and I’ll send them placemats,” Lopata said. “I really want those inner-city kids, those rural poor kids, to be able to have this product. Those are the people who are my inspirations."
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