For Tiffany Sorya, becoming a homeschooling tutor for celebrities and other one percents was far from intuitive. During her freshman years at Portland State University, she admits she was a “terrible” student. But by the time she graduated, she had turned things around, getting such good grades that friends asked, “How did you go from failing O(organic) chemistry to ace in O Chem?” she recalls.
For fun, she began tutoring friends who needed help. But when the now 36-year-old first-generation Cambodian-American with Instagram-chic style (she has over 306,000 followers) graduated and moved to Los Angeles, she took her hobby more seriously and landed a job at a tutoring agency.
Sorya’s teaching skills combined with her social ease and west coast flair – a recent IG post jokingly shows her piloting a motorboat in a black one-piece swimsuit with a plunging neckline: “Guys, summer is ending and I have only ONCE was on a boat” – making it an instant hit with Hollywood clients looking for a way to educate their children, who often weren’t living, or in some cases working, within the confines of the traditional 7-hour school day .
Two of her first students were Kylie and Kendall Jenner. “Obviously they weren’t who they are now[back in the early 2010s]. But they still worked. They would have a photoshoot that would start at 7am, so they couldn’t go to school until 2pm that day. Or they might have an event at four in the afternoon and need to start glam at one. So they had to have school from nine to noon that day.” Word of mouth expanded Sorya’s client base to include Ireland Baldwin; two from dr. Dre’s children, Truly and Truice Young; and members of boy band In Real Life.
This focus on a personalized homeschool schedule became the foundation of the Novel Education Group that Sorya founded in 2014. With offices in LA, New York and Andorra (the tiny country between Spain and France where many European football stars – and Shakira – have vacation homes) and tutors based around the world, the company offers both homeschooling and enrichment Offers tutoring options (e.g., four-week reading tutoring) for families “who want regular school, but on their schedule,” says Sorya. And of course, who can afford an average fee of $5,000 to $7,000 per month. These costs cover between three and five hours of tutoring per day, five days a week. Sorya says the shortened school day is possible when students work one-on-one with tutors, rather than sitting in a classroom with twenty-plus children.
The service is ideal for VIPs who either don’t want to send their kids to a brick-and-mortar school for privacy reasons, or whose globetrotting schedules make it difficult to enroll their kids in a traditional online school with a set schedule — and time zone. In other words, for someone like one of Sorya’s clients who is a “really high-level CEO who owns a public company and travels all over the world all the time,” says Sorya. (She can’t elaborate further due to iron-clad non-disclosure agreements.) “The family has homes in Yellowstone and Cabo, and they decided to spend Christmas in Cabo and the summer in Yellowstone. So they wanted school to be in the morning so the kids could go swimming in the afternoon with the kids club in Cabo. Or they want to go to school in the mornings from January to March, around 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Then their kids ski the rest of the day.”
In some cases, it’s not skiing but brand-building extracurricular activities that a student wants more free time for. When Sorya worked with the Jenners, Keeping up with the Kardashians was on the air and Kendall had a modeling career. The sisters also started thinking about a clothing line. “They were really focused at work,” says Sorya. “They were entrepreneurs themselves and they were trying to figure out what this thing was, and[homeschooling]really allowed them to do that.
“When you’re in regular school and you’re like, ‘Oh, I really like makeup. What could I do with that?” the teacher will likely say, “That’s great. Save it for after class.” But when you’re in homeschool and hearing this, it’s time to start talking about these things. You say, “Oh, that’s a great idea. Tell me more.’ So it just encourages a different way of thinking. I think homeschooling develops a more independent thinker. And parents love to see that. And colleges like to see that.”
The draft curriculum for Novel is provided by Laurel Springs School, an online school based in Pennsylvania. But Sorya and her team then develop the curriculum for each student, based on their needs and interests. For example, there was the kid — a member of the Saudi royal family — who was in the seventh grade “and was really struggling with math. They just couldn’t get him to do anything,” says Sorya. (Nearly 40 percent of Novel’s deals are with Saudi royal families or families linked to the royal family.)
“But he was obsessed with football. We have a curriculum designer on our team. So she designed a seventh grade math program for him through soccer. It was math, but it was all about football. It was basically like geometry in football – footballs, the angle at which you kick the ball – there are angles everywhere when it comes to football. And also to create word problems that are about soccer. We actually do that very often. It’s all custom.”
In fact, Novel markets itself as a concierge service for parents who don’t have the time or inclination to handle the day-to-day logistics of raising their children. Tutors assigned to families “take care of everything from top to bottom,” says Sorya. “That’s what families want. They don’t have time to answer emails from school, talk to teachers and try to decide which classes are the best. We do all that.”
“All of that” involves helping students prepare for an Ivy League college education — another de facto Expectations of the type of parents Sorya works with. “The parents will say, ‘This is the path for their future,'” says Sorya. “We want to try to get her to Yale.
“So we, Number One, are responsible for getting her grades right. Number two, make sure they take all the courses they should have. Number three, make sure they do a fair amount of extracurricular activities. Parents are really counting on us to ensure they get a full educational experience while ‘we have to spend a month in Montreal and then we’ll be in St Barts in December and in London for February.’”
And what if the student doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of the prospective Yale student? What if they just aren’t at school like that?
“There’s always a way to incorporate what interests a child into an academic curriculum,” says Sorya. “The best example I can give you – and that goes for Saudi kids, that goes for American kids, it’s across the board: gaming is so huge. So we get that all the time. “My son is 13 and all he wants to do is play video games.” So we say, “Okay, that’s one thing, video games. It’s not just mindless gaming. The kids are kinda active. So what can we make of this? Can we turn this into a graphic design hobby? Can we turn this into a programming hobby? Can we turn this into an illustration hobby?’
“It’s important that the children, the students, always feel that they decide what they’re going to do up to a certain point. When students have some control over what they learn, they respond much better. So they’re going to say, “Okay, I love video games, so I want to code.” The second they actually learn what coding is, they don’t want to code anymore. It’s a bunch of slashes and letters and numbers that you type into a thing to, you know, make an arm gesture. So once they see what that is, they’re disinterested.
“What they really like about video games is the storytelling. So what we can do with that is work on their writing skills and their storytelling and their voice when it comes to the papers they write. So they can turn their interests into something that will be applicable is also something the parents are really happy about and looking for.”
Have parents ever made requests that they just can’t fulfill?
“We really tried our best to make everything,” says Sorya. “Although we’ve had a few inquiries as a film director. Like, ‘I want to do movies when I’m older.’ So we made these programs with them. We’ve made film programs about how to storyboard, how to shoot. But sometimes it’s a bit extreme when they say, ‘I want to do a whole movie!’ We say, “We can’t do that.” And that’s why these questions are sometimes a bit much. But we try to translate it into something useful for them, where they can at least practice it. And then the parents love it.”