Making the Grade: Elevating Nail Schools

All too often, cosmetology schools in the U.S. aren’t putting their best foot forward when it comes to educating future nail technicians. For nail schools to get all As when it comes to training students for the real salon world, we need more dedicated nail instructors, increased hours, and a commitment to more than just the state board exam.

A full classroom of enthusiastic students is a beautiful thing. Eager hands raised at every question. No grades below an 85% on any test. Students who are lifelong friends with each other, and lifelong friends with their instructors. A 100% homework completion rate. This isn’t a fantasy. It’s a day-to-day occurrence at numerous law schools, medical schools, journalism schools, business schools, and, yes, at select nail schools and beauty schools’ nail programs.

Karyn Lenhart was one such enthusiastic nail student (now she’s a licensed nail tech and salon owner), who was so happy with Citrus Heights Beauty College in Citrus Heights, Calif., that she went there twice — once for her esthetics education and a second time for nails. Citrus Heights is so successful that it has a waiting list for many of its programs. “When I was researching beauty schools, one kept coming up over and over again. Whether it was word of mouth or passing statistics, everyone said, ‘Go to Citrus Heights Beauty College,’” Lenhart remembers. “I applied, took an exam, and then got wait-listed. I decided it was worth the wait.”

Lenhart’s school choice paid off. “My expectations were high. I knew I got more than my money’s worth the first time so the bar was way up there. The school’s programs don’t disappoint.” As soon as she graduated from the nail program and passed her state board exam, she immediately added nail services to her menu of salon offerings. “I had enough knowledge to go out in the world and put my hands to work,” she says.

At Royal Beauty School in South Houston, Texas, instructor Madelyn Johnson has spent the past three years making improvements to the nail program and delights in seeing the improvements pay off for her students. Johnson says, “I have salon owners call me all the time to hire my students. I have two students who right out of school got hired at day spas and who are still working there more than a year later. Salon owners have called me to say what great students we have at Royal Beauty, reporting back that the graduates are on time and cordial to the customers.” Improvements Johnson implemented included setting up a definite classroom schedule, teaching techniques that will make the students money even if those techniques aren’t tested on the state board exam (including gel-polish and 3-D nail art), and turning the student product kit from the size of a caboodle to the size of a checked bag. With the support of the school director, Johnson added more products to the kit to prepare students for real world nail salons. 

Project coordinator and instructor Gracie King, who works at Bella Beauty College in San Antonio, Texas, also teaches students beyond what’s required to pass the state board exam. “One of my graduates had an inspection and the inspector asked her where she got her training, because he had never seen such a clean and organized salon,” King says, adding that several of her students have come back to become instructors themselves, helping the industry improve by training and graduating more educated nail techs.

Unfortunately, these school success stories are not universal, and many argue they are not even the norm. I discovered this firsthand a few months ago, when an aspiring nail tech e-mailed me to ask if I could recommend a great nail school in her area, which is one of the most populated metro areas in the United States and also has one of the highest populations of licensed nail techs. I e-mailed a few established nail salon owners in the area and waited for the responses to roll in. When they did roll in, I wondered if I could simply delete all the e-mails and pretend I’d never asked. “No, don’t have one. Sorry,” said the first, who added that “advanced education is best after they get their license” as the only way to really get proper training. Another owner, who owns two nail salons no less, said, “I don’t know of any good schools to recommend.” And one salon owner resorted to calling area schools a four-letter word, adding that school is “just to pass the test.”

Johnson is not surprised. “Do you want to know who I learned from in nail school? The girl sitting next to me. The instructor was a cosmetologist who specialized in hair and knew nothing about nails. She announced to the class that she knew nothing about nails. She was just there to show us how to pass the state board exam.”

Next page: Obstacles

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