Jessica Reis has a simple, yet powerful motto to guide her approach to helping students struggling in school: "It's about you, not just what you know."

Reis, who owns and operates Reis Learning Center in New Milford, believes students can improve their academic performance only when they have gained confidence and self-esteem.

During a recent interview, the 29-year-old New Milford resident said her newly established business is unique in the industry because it is not just focused on academics.

"We want to foster a sense of self-worth in the student," Reis said. "We want to make sure students feel empowered."

Previously known as the Learning Center, Reis Learning Center became an official entity in February, six months after the unexpected death of former owner Christine Matta.

Reis, who worked at the Learning Center for two years as director of operations before Matta's death, suddenly found herself in charge of the business.

"I just took the reins. It was very fast paced, and there was no time to feel anything," Reis said.

She noted one of the most difficult aspects about the transition was informing clients about Matta's death.

"Christine had touched so many lives," Reis said.

Although Reis has continued most of the Learning Center's existing programs, she plans to establish the business as her own by implementing her philosophy of empowering.

Reis Learning Center focuses on three key areas: skill building, homework help and subject tutoring.

A year ago, Anne-Marie Vogt brought her sixth-grade son to the Learning Center for help with math, and said she is very pleased with the progress he has made.

"Within four weeks, his math grade went from a D- to a B-," Vogt said. "It has stayed there, and the teacher is noticing the difference in his participation. He is more confident and less anxious about his work."

While academic improvement is the ultimate goal, Reis said achieving this result is only possible when a student understands trying is just as, if not more, important than getting the right answer in class.

Reis said she "puts the spotlight on positive classroom behavior," which means she teaches the students how to ask questions.

Each student who comes to Reis Learning Center is given a diagnostic evaluation to determine specific needs. From there, Reis develops an individualized program for the student.

The goal is ultimately to "fill in the gaps in a student's education," Reis said.

All students are tutored one-on-one. There are eight instructors currently at work at the center.

Reis noted, however, students work with different tutors so they will be exposed to different teaching styles.

Tutoring is designed to reinforce what students are working on in school.

"We foster a skills approach," Reis said "where instructors go over the process step by step and then fade out over time,"

Students and parents understand it is a multi-step process to reach the level they hope to achieve; this is especially true for students whose educational gaps have not been addressed for years.

Mary Lilley's eighth-grade daughter has been going to the Learning Center for skill building since fourth grade.

"My daughter enjoys going there, and the staff members make her feel a part of the learning experience," Lilley said. " We have seen dramatic changes in her performance."

Instructors at Reis Learning Center work with students from kindergarten through high school. They have even tutored adults who are studying for a GED or who have gone back to college.

"It is really for anyone who is looking to improve academically," Reis said.

Instructors work with students who need help in particular subject areas or who need extra help with challenging homework assignments.

A key element of Reis Learning Center programs is communication, not just between instructors and parents but also between the students and Reis, who monitors every student's progress.

Reis believes it is important for parents to understand specifically how instructors are achieving positive results with the students. Parents are invited to watch sessions briefly to see how their child is learning.

"I want to make everything observable and measurable," Reis said. "Parents want to know how to duplicate the process at home because the kids are doing so well."

Vogt has experienced this firsthand with her son.

"Jessica has taught him tricks to organize his work," she said. "I've noticed tremendous growth and independence from more confidence."

The confidence factor is what Reis focuses on when she works with students, and this is a natural outgrowth of her background in psychology and mental health counseling.

It's a bit like the story of "The Little Engine That Could" -- it's about thinking you can do it.

Reis is planning a grand opening for Reis Learning Center for the near future.

For more information, visit the center at 19 Main St., Suite B, in New Milford, call 860-354-0854 or email jessica.learningcenternm@gmail.com.