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John Ebert: Growing opportunities for young people and his employees

John Ebert stands at the front of an auditorium filled with high school kids to help them try to improve their math score on the upcoming ACT test. With a high enough score, they can qualify for a Promise Scholarship of up to $19,000 from the state of West Virginia to help pay for college.

“OK, here we go! Here we go! What kind of triangle have we got here? Draw it out, guys, draw it out,” said Ebert.

Ebert, trained as a CPA, is an independent franchisee of McDonald’s restaurants in West Virginia and Maryland. He just closed on a deal to buy 14 more, so he’ll have 37 – making him one of the largest McDonald’s independent franchisees in the United States. His restaurants employ more than 2,200 people.

“We go all the way down I-79 from Morgantown to Belle – it’s all my restaurants, so when you enter West Virginia, you are entering my brand,” he said with a smile.

But tonight he’s a teacher.

Ebert created this math ACT prep course four years ago when he noticed kids in his community were not qualifying for state scholarship funds. He wanted to do something about it. Now more than 1,300 kids have gone through the four-hour class. For free. Ebert teaches and funds the class, which is held five or six times a year. He also personally tutors about 20 students a year.

They’re kids like Donald Kummer, 18, of Bridgeport and Pei Pei Rexroad, 18, of nearby Clarksburg. They’re great students already, but they just wanted to get that extra push to improve their math scores. Donald’s scores went up four points to 24 after taking Ebert’s class. Pei Pei, who is the Salutatorian in her class (that’s the No.2 highest-ranking scholar), has taken the class four times – just to stay sharp.

“We went through everything in his class, almost every question in the ACT and he showed us how to work out the answers faster,” said Donald.

“He’s always positive and interactive,” said Pei Pei. “He’ll do anything he can to help you.”

Ebert’s classes have been so successful that his students have even gotten letters from the company that runs the ACT test. “They thought the kids were cheating on the test,” he said, “because their scores went up so high!” Ebert has taught high school athletes who can’t play for college unless they get – at least – a 17 on the ACT. (The top score is 36.)   Kids have also gathered at Ebert’s first restaurant he ever bought just outside Bridgeport. “They’ll say, ‘Meet me at McDonald’s’ and I’ll go over math with them here,” he said.

The next ACT test date is June 11, and he thinks his kids will be ready. The ACT prep classes are just one of the ways Ebert “pays it forward” across his network of restaurants to employees and people in the community. He runs an annual leadership Grit class for 8th grade students and an annual baseball clinic for Bridgeport community (it’s his 11th consecutive year).

And he’s brought creativity and teamwork to his employees with some innovative training programs. He’s made sure his employees who qualify participate in Archways to Opportunity, a set of education programs funded by McDonald’s. Through Archways to Opportunity, McDonald’s offers eligible employees the chance to earn their High School diploma, receive tuition assistance for college, and even learn English.

“I want to help people reach their full potential,” he said.

Carol Chidester of Buckhannon, West Virginia, is one of them. She’s getting her high school diploma for free through the Archways to Opportunity program – after 29 years working in a McDonald’s restaurant. She started as a crew member and now supervises four of Ebert’s restaurants. Working in a McDonald’s was the first job she ever had, and now she’s a general manager of four restaurants.

Getting a high School diploma was “something I always wanted to do for myself,” said Carol. “It makes me feel better about myself.” Carol is taking the year-long course that covers the entire 9th through 12th grade curriculum – math, literature, history and science are among the classes. She finishes a semester every two weeks by studying after work, sometimes as late as 2 a.m.

The course “is not a breeze,” said Ebert, with understatement.

Kristi Berardi, 19, from Shinnston, West Virginia, is another employee who has benefited from working for John Ebert. She’s gotten two $750 scholarships to go to college at nearby Fairmont State University where she is a freshman.

She lives at home to save money, and has used Archways to Opportunity scholarships for books and tuition. She’s also gotten other scholarships. “It’s a good opportunity to help me pay for school,” said Kristi, who is still working part time at Ebert’s McDonald’s while she goes to school. Ebert is modest about his efforts. “I just want to see people reach their full potential,” he said.
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