Back to school: Faith Ann Takes of Empire Education Corporation
Photograph by Katherine Wright
For someone who didn’t particularly like school when she was growing up, Faith Ann Takes certainly spends a lot of time there. For the past 29 years, this Guilderland resident has made it her mission to build and nurture schools for people just like herself — that is, people who don’t embrace the traditional college track.
As president and owner of Empire Education Corporation, which operates a career college with three locations and a separate cosmetology school, Takes is in constant motion. She visits all of her campuses every week, making sure things are running smoothly for her 1,900-plus students, not to mention her 350 employees.
Takes’s students aren’t the usual college crowd — there is no party atmosphere, and certainly no poolside spring breaks. In fact, very few have come directly from high school. The average age is 29 — at the tail end of young adulthood. “When they come to us, they already have obligations to a family or job, so we try to create an environment of flexibility,” says Takes. Online, evening, and weekend courses are all part of what Takes calls a “blended schedule.”
Takes was 28, the same age as her students, when she plunged head-first into the school business. “I struggled in traditional college until I figured out that I wanted to go to secretarial school instead. I loved it because I was doing something concrete,” she says. Eventually she did return to college (SUNY Albany) to get her degree in business education — which enabled her to teach high school secretarial courses and, later, a Welfare to Work program out of Saratoga. It was there that she saw first-hand how tough it was for people without a high school degree and little career training to get a job.
That’s when she put on her thinking cap and devised a plan to revitalize a dinosaur of a school in downtown Albany. Mildred Elley was founded in 1917 by its namesake to address the dearth of office workers in the Capital Region during World War I. On its last legs in 1985 with 37 students (all female), it would most certainly have died a natural death had Takes not approached the owners, who were nearing retirement, and offered to buy it. It took awhile, but they relented, and in 1985 Takes became president of Mildred Elley.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, Takes kept the Mildred Elley name. But she dusted off its image, heading out to speak to women’s groups and attract a fresh student body. “I put together a business plan,” explains Takes. “People gave me seed money.”
Those days in the 1980s involved a lot of sweat equity. Takes painted, added cozy rugs, bought some IBM typewriters and RadioShack computers, and ran the school pretty much singlehandedly. She recalls with a laugh how she would answer the phones and put people on hold to create the illusion of a staff.
Wearing another hat, she was right there in the classroom teaching secretarial skills again. Takes made the school coeducational and gradually hired other teachers in areas where job demand is high: paralegal, information technology, event management, medical assisting, practical nursing. Enrollment soared, and Takes won authority from the Board of Regents to grant degrees (the school offers more than 20 degree and certificate programs). She also established other campuses: in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1992, and a Manhattan branch — right across from the Wall Street bull — in 2010. The original Mildred Elley Albany campus moved three times, most recently in 2008, and is now housed in a contemporary office building on Central Avenue along with Takes’s other new venture: Austin’s School of Spa Technology (formerly Austin Beauty School), an 80-plus-year-old beauty academy revamped for today with cosmetology, aesthetics, nails, barbering, and makeup artistry among its offerings.
Since Takes acquired it in 2005, the school’s enrollment has ballooned from 50 to 300. It even has its own salon, which is booked solid with college students and parents bringing their kids in for a haircut.
“It’s been a long road,” admits Takes. She recalls seeing her first year’s financial statement, revealing she had lost a whopping $92,000. “I was really crawling out from nothing. But when I look back over the history, I realize there has been so much intrinsic reward in what I do. Even in my most discouraging times, all I have to do is go to a graduation and I’m revitalized. We’ve done more than train a person. We’ve changed their lives, and the lives of their families. There have been some tearful moments.”
Woody’s Barber Shop, owned and operated by Saratoga’s Joe Wood, a graduate of Austin’s School of Spa technology
Photograph courtesy of Woody’s Barber Shop
April Raketsky had no interest in the party culture of college when she started at Mildred Elley’s Albany campus in May 2011. She was only interested in racking up credits as quickly as possible. As a single mom supporting a two-year-old daughter, she had a good income in nursing, but she lacked a passion for the profession. Raketsky always wanted to go into law, so when she heard about the paralegal program at Mildred Elley, she signed on, and in one fell swoop earned both her GED and her associate’s degree in occupational studies in January of 2013. “It was exhausting, but I felt such a sense of completion,” says Raketsky. Today the 34-year-old juggles two part-time paralegal jobs referred through the school and is loving it. “I’ve already looked into law school,” she says.
For Saratoga’s Joe Wood, his career as a barber seemed to grow from its own momentum. He had worked for years in the restaurant industry in Las Vegas, but came east three years ago to be near his father, who was living in a nursing home. When his dad asked him to cut his hair, Wood Jr. discovered he was pretty good with the clippers, and soon other seniors were lining up for their own turn. His dad’s dying wish was for Wood to become a barber, so he enrolled in Austin’s School of Spa Technology. “I went three days a week, all day, eight hours a day,” he recalls. “And on my day off I volunteered at the senior center and cut hair for free. It took about eight months.” Today, the 51-year-old presides over his own business: Woody’s Barber Shop in downtown Saratoga, where the art of the straight razor shave is still proudly practiced. Wood has a barber on staff who is an Austin graduate and plans to expand and hire several more. Serendipitously, the U.S. Navy’s Naval Support Unit is in Saratoga Springs — which ensures a steady stream of clientele. “I have a blast,” says Wood. “You know, every head is different.”
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