NEWPORT, Ky. -- Bob Marley's upbeat music is blaring and you might get a Twinkie thrown at you. That may not seem like the scene for a typical ACT test-preparation class for high school students, but that's how they do it at Torch Prep.
Newport-based Torch Prep, which launched in 2010, offers high-energy courses to teach high school students strategies for improving their score on the ACT. A higher score could result in more college acceptance letters and scholarship money.
Torch Prep had an unlikely origin that's tied directly to the personal history of co-founder Mark Treas. He grew up in Cincinnati and had a rough start in life: His biological father was abusive, and eventually his mother took Treas and his three brothers into hiding at a women's crisis center.
"I grew up afraid every day," Treas said.
His mother later remarried, and Treas and his brothers were adopted by her husband, whom Treas describes as a kind, gentle man with integrity whose last name he took as a teen.
After graduating college with a counseling degree and the intent to help others, Treas ended up playing professional blackjack as part of a team. He trained others to stop thinking like gamblers and start thinking strategically like mathematicians. He was having fun and making money, but a long-standing interest in helping kids lingered.
A conversation with his grandfather when Treas was in his mid-20s was a turning point.
"My grandfather asked me, ‘Mark, what are you doing with your life? Your grandma and I helped build a hospital. What are you doing for the city?' And I felt so small," Treas said. "It sent me down the path of asking myself, 'How do I take the desires of my heart -- which has always been to help kids -- and the work of my hands and combine them?'"
Treas and his friend Rhett Barbour, a math teacher at Highland High School, had started a couple of side businesses while Barbour was teaching and Treas was in the blackjack-training business. While brainstorming, the entrepreneurs decided they wanted to do something to change the course of high school students' lives.
"We landed on the ACT as having the most systemic impact," Treas said.
With Treas' background in strategic thinking -- as well as work as a church youth minister -- and Barbour's experience with teens in education, the pair co-founded Torch Prep, eventually quitting their day jobs to run the company full time. Starting first with private schools, they are now working with many public schools in the Cincinnati area, as well as schools in Dayton, Northern Kentucky, Lexington and Louisville. This year, Torch Prep is working with 6,000 juniors locally. Seven hundred of those are Cincinnati Public Schools students.
Students either buy their own seat in a Torch Prep program or, in some cases, a school will contract directly with Torch Prep to provide training to all of its interested students to help them get into college. If a student isn't satisfied with his improvement on the ACT, he can retake the course at no additional charge.
Treas is especially passionate about reaching and inspiring students who may have the odds stacked against them when it comes to going to college.
"We are trying to create an environment of getting kids to believe that they can and also giving them the very surgical tools for improvement," Treas said.
Instead of talking about improving scores, Torch Prep breaks the test down and discusses the impact of getting just four more correct answers on the test -- and showing what that can mean to their scores.
"Four more questions on the English portion means no remedial college class, which means a savings of $2,000 and you graduate a semester earlier. We ask who works at McDonald's or Kroger and then ask, 'How long do you have to push the carts at Kroger to pay for those four questions that you are missing?' Then the dots are connected," Treas said.
In the math portion of the ACT, students often miss questions they learned in eighth grade because they were stumped by the harder questions and ran out of time to grab what Treas calls the "low-hanging fruit." Torch Prep trainers teach students to go through the test and do the easier questions first, then come back to the more difficult questions. This can be an easy way to boost a student's score.
Both of St. Xavier history teacher Joe Molony's kids took Torch Prep classes. His daughter will be in college in the fall, and his son is a junior at Indiana University. Both improved their scores after taking the course. Molony's son's score increased by five points, and that -- along with his academic record -- allowed him to get into the school of his choice and earn scholarships to make it more affordable.
"What interested me in Torch Prep is that they are more about test-taking strategies," Molony said. "I don't think either of my kids really needed help with the math or the science, it's more how they taught them to approach the test, the methodology to it."
Torch Prep requires its trainers to be energetic, passionate about connecting with the students, great at math and have high ACT scores themselves. They also need to be willing to show a YouTube video, tell a personal story or stand on top of a desk to make a point. The trainers start the lengthy classes with snacks, loud music and a goal to engage and greet each student personally.
Ashley Hardee, a Xavier University chemistry and pre-med junior, was once a Torch Prep student. Now, she is a trainer. She's preparing to take the MCAT to get into medical school and has discovered that a lot of the Torch Prep strategies are helping her with that test as well.
"I like that the core value of Torch Prep is that the ACT is just a gatekeeper between you and college. It doesn't define you," Hardee said.