Schenectady County

Local firm finds niche making educational, but fun, kits for kids

Michael DeBritz’s new office looks a lot like a his old one: an office supply store gone haywire.

Michael DeBritz’s new office looks a lot like a his old one: an office supply store gone haywire. Lining the shelves are crates brimming with paper clips, scissors, pens and straws. And then there are the socks, hair samples and chromatography paper.

DeBritz is no pack rat. The eclectic collection is the heart of his business, Community Learning.

For the past three years, Community has developed hands-on educational kits for elementary and middle school students. The kits encourage children to use forensics, play music or create collages.

Community, which started in DeBritz’s Niskayuna home and relocated to Union College U-Start business incubator on Nott Terrace in Schenectady, has moved again. With year-to-date kit orders already double what they were for the same period of 2007, DeBritz relocated to an 1,800-square-foot space on Sacandaga Road. The building used to house the Peddler’s Wagon antique shop.

“We really found a channel for our kits in after-school [programs], because they want kids to do something interesting but not another two hours of school,” said DeBritz, a 45-year-old Syracuse native who worked for a New York-based tutoring firm.

Community’s first kit was the Cookie Jar Mystery, a G-rated version of the popular CSI forensic crime television series.

During hour-long lessons with up to 20 participants, children can use an array of forensic techniques, from fingerprinting to ink chromatography to handwriting analysis, to determine which of four pretend suspects pilfered a cookie jar.

Other kits include Being an Artist, Playing with Percussion and the Missing Money Mystery. New releases slated for this year include Being a Screenwriter and the sports-oriented Playing Ball with Math.

The St. Pius X School in Loudonville was the first institution to test Community kits for a summer program.

Since then, the kits have spread to more than 100 schools in 40 states, including in Albany and Schenectady school districts.

Each kit costs between $1,200 and $1,700 and resupply packages range between $200 and $300. Districts either pay for the kits out-of-pocket or with the support of grants.

DeBritz attributed Community’s sudden surge in orders to his recent participation in education trade shows in Florida and California.

The company last year sold about 100 kits, compared to 30 in 2006. This year, Debritz expects his sales volume to exceed 200.

It was that uptick in orders that forced Community to leave one of U-Start’s incubator sites in a Victorian-style home. U-Start offers inexpensive office, mentoring services and amenities to new businesses.

Community’s Scotia office is more than four times larger than its U-Start space.

The business employs three people, including DeBritz. DeBritz relies on more than 50 suppliers to fill his kits with various items.

“It’s crazy, but it’s what you have to do,” DeBritz said.

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