Schools for after school. Private tutoring centers spawn profits and controversy
Walnut Creek, Calif.
``Oh, I hate this one!'' chirps fourth-grader Kelly when she comes to the exercise that asks students to find the main idea in each of a series of paragraphs. Teacher Kathy Farrell gives tomboyish Kelly some quick words of encouragement, then turns her attention to Jeff, a lanky eighth-grader. He's having a little trouble figuring out the patterns in computations. She walks him through .5 divided by 2. Jeff's clouded expression lifts a bit. ``OK, I see, I see,'' he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Next it's David, another fourth-grader. The multiplication table is weighing him down. ``Go back to an `eight' you know,'' suggests Mrs. Farrell, helping to get the squirmy youngster on track again.
So goes a typical afternoon at the Sylvan Learning Center in this Bay Area suburb. Each teacher deals with three students for a concentrated hour a day, two days a week, after regular school is over. The children plow through workbooks, stopping frequently to query their teacher, who occasionally sends them over to work a lesson on one of the computers that line a nearby wall.
The same kind of intensive three-on-one tutoring takes place at The Reading Game a continent away in Needham, Mass. Like the Walnut Creek Sylvan unit, this center is housed in a sparkling new office complex. The classroom area, decked out in the red, white, and blue company colors, features racks of reading material, cubicles for computers, and other educational gear. Students range from a high school junior to a fourth-grader.
Gayle Lehrfeld, regional manager of the nine Reading Game centers in the Boston area, says that ``individualization'' of instruction is ``extremely important.'' If you have a sixth-grader reading at a third-grade level, she explains, the learning center ``can offer things at his reading level, but with subjects he's interested in.'' Public schools might not have that flexibility, she says.
Ms. Lehrfeld emphasizes, however, that The Reading Game is not in competition with public systems, but ``a supplement'' to them. When parents and school officials agree to it, her instructors work with regular school teachers, coordinating efforts and assessing progress.
Learning centers like those in Walnut Creek and Needham have steadily sprouted in recent years. The Reading Game has 87 centers nationwide, while Sylvan has ``close to 300'' facilities around the country, according to Glenn Hogen, head of that company's education division.
These firms are the giants in the field, with Reading Game having pioneered 17 years ago the methods now employed by both companies. Both originated on the West Coast, and both have recently been bought out -- Sylvan by the Kindercare Corporation of Montgomery, Ala., and The Reading Game by Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The ``basics'' form the heart of their curriculum, with some extras. Algebra is available at Sylvan; The Reading Game offers the Evelyn Wood speed-reading course, reflecting another Britannica acquisition. Both give high schoolers special training for college entrance exams, and both occasionally enroll adults as well as children.
The bulk of their business, however, comes from parents whose children have fallen behind at school. For these youngsters, the goal is to climb back up to ``grade level,'' or perhaps a little beyond. A few young scholars come for ``enrichment'' -- extra tutoring that feeds an already strong taste for learning.