Danielle Florio is the co-founder of City Smarts, a company that provides tutoring, college admissions services, and test prep. She was born in upstate New York but currently lives in New York City, and has been running City Smarts for the last nine years. During her time away from her students, Danielle manages the Whisk & Ladle supperclub in Williamsburg and makes homemade ice cream.
Can you tell us a little bit about why you founded City Smarts?
City Smarts is a full-service tutoring company—so not exactly a school—but we do teach a good deal of workshops. We provide subject tutoring for all subjects and exams as well as standardized test prep and admissions consulting for predominantly 4th through 12th graders. It’s a bit of a rat race here in New York City—in the public sector especially. There are a lot of various admissions and placement tests, hoops these kids have to jump through in an effort to nab one of the limited spots open at a top school. A lot of our work focuses on confidence building too, and we are mindful of taking a holistic approach. It’s important first and foremost to put the student at ease.
We started City Smarts because, honestly, it seemed like a really fun job. And we thought we might be good at it. I had been working a 9-to-5 that was not a passion but a way to enter the workforce in New York City and afford to live here. My roommate and now business partner Mark did a lot of private tutoring while finishing up his degree. He was working fewer hours, yet making more money than me. Mark turned to me and said, “Don’t be one of those people who just whines about their job and does nothing to change it. Quit, let’s start a tutoring business.” I gave my company notice within a month of that conversation.
I had to review and study and take lessons with Mark for months. I especially love working with kids in math because it tends to be intimidating, more so than any other subject. There’s this big scary myth about math that prevents kids from feeling that it’s accessible, and I think fairly often kids will shut down in class when they’re having trouble following the lesson. Then it’s a domino effect if they don’t gain clarity immediately because math curricula are typically sequential, with one topic building on the next.
The huge difference with tutoring, of course, is that it’s just the student and me. They have zero opportunity to disengage, space out or shut down. In a one-on-one setting, I can usually help a kid gain clarity on a math concept that may have stumped them for years, as long as I stay flexible in my approach. Every single student I work with is a little different than the next, and part of the fun of my work is to identify what works for each individual and what doesn’t.
We’re starting a little partnership together. A Women’s Thing is providing City Smarts with free copies to share with your students. Why do you think it’s important to share “women’s stories that matter”—especially for your female students?
This has become a deeper focus of mine as of late: to encourage and strengthen my young female students and to help them achieve academic confidence and the kind of self-assurance that translates to building confidence in all aspects of their lives. We want them growing in a way that facilitates self-advocated problem solving, exploration and risk taking.
I see a lot of anxiousness in my students, but a good deal more so with the girls. This has just been my experience. We are all well aware of the pressures society puts on women, and we know it infiltrates the brains of young girls. I get a lot of students clinging to the “I won’t get math ‘cause I’m a girl” myth way too strongly, and I make a big effort to dispel that deeply ingrained sentiment by the time I’m through with them.
A Women’s Thing falls right in step with what I see as a very important aspect and endeavor in my work: to empower my young female students to work hard, to be assertive and confident in their convictions, and to never settle for anything less than the powerful young minds that they are.
What are some successful paths of students you’ve followed, or some paths you didn’t expect? What do you think made the difference?
I believe it’s important to allow the student to reveal themselves on their own time and on their own terms. It’s totally fair to encourage them positively, but at the end of the day they are their own individual selves and I try to honor whatever that is, as it is shared with me. I ask them for feedback, to be honest with me when they feel my approach isn’t working, what’s worked for them and what hasn’t historically. Because I engage them on this level (even the 4th graders!), they develop an understanding that our relationship is functioning off a shared goal, but even more importantly: mutual respect.
I try to be as transparent about my observations with my students’ parents because parental engagement is an integral part of the tutoring process—especially for the younger kids. We work for absolutely amazing families, but there are times when a parent may be putting too much or too little pressure on their child, when their expectations are not truly grounded in who their child really is, or what they’re capable of, or they themselves may be experiencing high anxiety due to their kids’ upcoming exams. It’s these instances where I do my best to diplomatically advocate for the student.
I don’t mean to imply I have had a whole bunch of tricky conversations with former clients—that’s not the case at all—but if our parents come to us with an honest understanding of who their kid is, we are going to work beautifully together. If expectations are not really aligned with who the student is, it is only the child that suffers.
I never wind up too shocked about the path of my students who are being raised in nurturing environments that foster who they truly are. But it can be a different story for students who are not being heard or understood (for whatever reason). Their paths can take on a more surprising direction. Sometimes after hearing about where a student wound up at college or what field of study they chose I think to myself, “I hope that was their choice, not their parents’.”
Success stories? I’m just so proud of each and every one of my students.
I’ve had students gain admissions to very competitive schools coming from middle schools that did not provide them with ample preparation, specifically in math, and who work hard to get to where they need to be.
I’ve had students go into creative arts where I may not have expected it—acting, photography, painting—and through that lens learned how incredibly dynamic and interested in the greater world they really are.
I’ve had students who are activists that use their voice, social media platforms and written word to advocate for change.
I have had students who campaigned all year for Hillary Clinton, who are still seven years away from being legally able to vote.
I think that if we can open ourselves up to getting to know our young people—and I am talking 13 and younger—there’s a lot we can learn from their innocence and sense of self. The lack of ego is totally refreshing. It’s all about curiosity and learning, learning, learning.
And as I am sure you’ve gathered, my students inspire me each and every day. I have immense gratitude for this. I try not to lose sight of it. And even on days where I’m overtired or overworked or overstressed—a day that some might decide to take off—I plow through because you know what? My students have an uncanny way of pulling me out of a funk. I cannot be bummed out for even two minutes around any of them. They’re that awesome, all of them.
How do you see our society changing in regards to your goal of “confidence building”?
I do see more organizations, media companies and nonprofits working to combat the gender inequalities in our country, and it’s inspiring to see more of it as I move further into this career. I am a fierce advocate for equal pay for equal work and find it appalling that this isn’t a shared goal across our country. Leaving the latest election results out of this conversation, I am emboldened and charged up to continue this work and stay focused on building confidence within all of my students, regardless of gender. The focus on my female students has come about organically. It’s something I innately feel many of them need desperately, so I try to fill that void and build them up as best I can in the time I have with each of them every week. There are plenty of times I am doing the same work with my male students too. It just seems desperately needed across the board with our young women and girls, societally speaking.
That said, I still think we have an enormous way to go on this front as a country and as a human race. I know this is the tip of the iceberg, but I am personally pretty sick of women’s magazines being 99 percent about what new diet to try, how thin you can get, and what clothes you should be wearing. All of these are unnecessary and irrational expectations to place on women and young girls.
Without plunging into a total rant on how we’re raising our sons versus our daughters in this country, I do think we are taking micro steps forward. But I have to be honest when I say I wish they were giant leaps.
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