``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.
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.
To a degree, the growth of private learning centers is a response to changing family patterns, particularly the prevalence of dual wage-earner households, observes Samuel Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Recognizing that nobody's home when school is out, ``the private sector has moved in rapidly, seeing an immediate need for study centers where kids can go after school,'' he says.
Dr. Sava has been pleased with the results at many centers. ``They really have helped with basic communication skills such as reading and writing, and have kept the children from an empty house,'' he says.
But the growth of private after-school learning centers has spawned some controversy along with profits. ``On balance, I'm concerned it simply will reinforce the gap between haves and have-nots,'' says Ernest Boyer, head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ``One would wish remedial and enrichment programs were public policies so they could be more generally available.''
Many of those who run learning centers are aware of the equity issue. ``We've tried to make it economically reachable for a majority of people,'' says William N. Crabbe, owner and administrator of the Walnut Creek Sylvan center. ``It doesn't reach everybody, though.'' He explains that Sylvan offers a financing plan than can spread the $200 monthly cost ($25 an hour) over one or two years, if necessary.
The Reading Game, whose fees are slightly higher, has a scholarship plan in partnership with community organizations, explains Lehrfeld. Under this arrangement, lower-income parents pay a third, a church, service club or other organization pays a third, and the learning center itself makes up the balance.
Another question concerns the methods used at private learning centers. Is this ephemeral, ``fast food'' learning?
When it comes to learning, asserts Lehrfeld, there is no quick solution. The best measure of the effectiveness of what goes on at her centers, she says, is performance back in the regular classroom. And that measure has been positive, she says, recalling one public schoolteacher's comment that ``it's like a different child.''
Dr. Hogen, an education professor before joining Sylvan, emphasizes the use of ``sequential learning,'' one skill building on the other. ``If you can't decode words, you can't go into comprehension skills,'' he says, explaining how the tutoring ought to work.
All the instructors at The Reading Game and Sylvan have to be state-certified teachers. They receive added training by the centers. One emphasis is constant encouragement and reinforcement of students. In line with this, teachers pass out ``tokens'' that can be used to ``buy'' books, tapes, and other things at the ``Sylvan store'' or at Reading Game's shelf-full of ``reward items.''
This simple incentive system works pretty well, according to Mrs. Farrell, who's been with Sylvan six months and was formerly a full-time teacher, ``Some children are aware they need to pick up skills. For others, it's a real big incentive,'' she says. It's all part of building their self-esteem, she adds, noting that that's a crucial ingredient of success.