When Robert Henneberry arrived with his 9-year-old daughter Olivia on Dec. 9 for her scheduled class at the Sykesville Huntington Learning Center, he knew right away something was wrong.
“I went to take her to her normal scheduled class, pulled up to the center and the lights were off. I parked in the parking lot, and told her to stay in the car while I go see what’s going on,” he said. “I ran out real quick and there was a sign on the door that said this center is closed until further notice.”
This raised alarm bells for Henneberry; since his daughter began taking classes at the learning center located at 6300 Georgetown Blvd. in April, the staff had always texted, called, or emailed if the center was to be closed due to an illness or any other reason.
“I immediately got back in the car and started making phone calls,” he said.
Those calls would not be returned until Tuesday, when the learning center’s owner, Joshua Franciscus, called to explain things, but left Henneberry with a lot of remaining uncertainty and questions. Franciscus has closed the learning center location for good and promised to refund tuition balances to families of students, though none of that was made clear to Henneberry for over a week prior.
A good beginning
Henneberry first signed up his daughter for classes at the Sykesville Huntington Learning Center location — a franchise owned by Franciscus, separate from Huntington Learning Center corporate — in April.
“Cost of the tuition was $7,200,” Henneberry said. “I paid $1,200 on my debit card the day we signed up, and we financed $6,000.”
Things went very well, he said — Olivia liked the classes and they were helping her do well in school — until Dec. 9.
Because once Henneberry realized that the location was almost certainly closed for good — he noticed the location had been removed from the Huntington Learning Center corporate website’s list of locations, and the director of a location in Columbia confirmed the closure to him over the phone — he realized he didn’t know what to do about the $2,500 balance he wasn’t sure if he still owed. He had financed the majority of the tuition through a third party, and the next payment would soon be due.
“I have another payment coming up on the 19th for $500, and I can’t just not make that payment because it will affect my credit,” he said.
But while the money is not insignificant, Henneberry said, it wasn’t really his primary worry.
“My daughter’s teachers have just been amazed at how much this has helped her improve,” he said. “The money obviously is a concern, but my concern is she has been doing so well, I don’t want her to stop.”
Voicemail after voicemail
Henneberry’s phone calls started with calls to the Sykesville center, which had always been responsive before. He left four to six messages, but never got a response.
His next call was to the Huntington Learning Center in Columbia, and someone there called Henneberry back on Dec. 11 to let him know that, yes, the Sykesville location was closed, that it was a franchise and thus closed by its owner, and that the owner was not the same person who owned the Columbia franchise.
So Henneberry began calling the Huntington Learning Center corporate number, 800-692-8400, trying to get someone, anyone, who could tell him whether he would be refunded or could put him in touch with the franchise owner, whose identity Henneberry did not know at that point.
“Every time I’ve done that whoever picks up the phone says, ‘Nope, I’m not who you need to talk to,’ and they transfer me,” Henneberry said. “But I’ve been relentless.”
When the Times reached out to the Huntington Learning Center corporate office Monday, the call was transferred to a woman who refused to identify herself as anyone but “Jamie C." and the “assistant office administrator of the Franchise Operations Department.”
During a brief phone call, a person identifying themselves as Jamie C. told the Times that Huntington Learning Center locations are franchises, that the owners would be responsible for any refunds to clients and that families could call her to get the contact information of the Sykesville franchise owner, before hanging up. A second call was quickly terminated by someone on the Huntington side, and a voicemail was not returned Tuesday evening.
Henneberry also left voicemails on a Huntington Learning Center corporate extension that appeared to be for a Jamie C., but he said those calls were never returned.
A week later
It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that Henneberry’s own mother called and reached a Jamie C., who gave Henneberry’s mother the number where they could reach Franciscus. So Henneberry called him.
“What he told me was that he was planning on selling the business, and the deal fell through at the last minute. And because it fell through, he was forced to close the doors,” Henneberry said. Franciscus also told Henneberry that a refund would be coming.
Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Franciscus reiterated that pledge to the Times.
“We are diligently working to refund any family that has an account balance. That is ongoing right now. Every family that has an account balance will be refunded,” he said. “If there are any questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I no longer have access to any Huntington system.”
While Franciscus didn’t discuss any further details of his business — formally named I & M Enrichment Inc., as noted on the Sykesville Huntington Learning Center Facebook page — he did express regret and noted that this has been a rough time for him as well.
“It was never our intention for it to close down,” he said. “I am in a hole, and all I can focus on is the families that had account balances and making sure they get their refunded money back. That is my sole focus right now.”
Henneberry said that in his conversation with Franciscus, the latter said he had sent out an email to all the learning center clients explaining the closure, but, Hennebery said, “I just know I haven’t received it.”
The Times was able to reach the Sykesville learning center’s director, Marissa Cote, via Facebook on Monday; she said the closure came as a shock to her as well.
“I had no idea the owner was having financial trouble,” she wrote in a message. " I personally have not been paid for the last three or four pay periods."
Cote said that she would have much preferred that the location remain open, and not just because it was her job.
“I poured so much of myself into that place, and I am very sad to see it close,” she wrote. “I continue to be disappointed with how everything is going.”
Open questions and unreturned calls
So where does that leave Henneberry? Wondering if he will, in fact, get a refund for the full $2,500, which he still plans to pay off in order to protect his credit rating.
But more importantly, Henneberry said, he’s left wondering what he will do for his daughter. He said he hopes he might be able to get in touch with Cote and make an arrangement for private tutelage, given that Olivia seemed to work very well with her.
If he cannot, there is the option of another Huntington Learning Center, in Columbia or elsewhere in Maryland, but Henneberry said that while those might be an option for other affected families, those centers are all too distant from his home in Taylorsville to be helpful.
And even if they weren’t too far away to be practical, Henneberry said, after the past week, Huntington has lost his business for good.
“I am very disappointed with their handling of the situation,” he said. “I wouldn’t put my trust in them again.”
In the end, Henneberry said, it’s not the money or even the loss of a good program for his daughter that is the kicker; it’s that nobody reached out to explain what was going on, and so many of his attempts to find out were frustrated.
Latest Carroll County News
“You know, communication in this whole ordeal would have been key to me,” he said. “If somebody had returned one of my phone calls, if anything would have come along the lines of notifying parents what was going on, it would have gone miles.”