SUE HENNESSY knew that her nine-year-old son, Patrick, was floundering in school early on.
"The teacher kept saying he was doing all right," she remembers. "But when he got into second grade, he came home in tears the first day and said, `Mom, everyone else can read. I can't read. I can't do this.' "
Patrick caught up with his classmates by attending regular after-school and summer sessions at the local Sylvan Learning Center, a private tutoring service.
"I waited much too long," Mrs. Hennessy says. "I should have had him in here earlier."
Private supplemental education is a booming business today. Parents spend about $875 million a year on private tutoring to help their children master reading, math, and study skills.
Sylvan is the largest company in the business, with about 450 centers in the United States and Canada. Its competitors, Britannica Learning Centers and Huntington Learning Centers, each have less than 100 locations.
Most students using private tutoring centers attend public schools, although some are in private schools. The majority need remedial instruction, but a handful attend for "enrichment."
"Instead of helping them study for their next big test, which is what tutors tend to do, we administer an extensive battery of diagnostic tests to determine what skills are missing, and then we go and fill those back in," says Douglas Becker, president of Sylvan Learning Systems. "That's what we're all about: filling holes."
Sylvan centers are franchised to independent owners and are located in office buildings or shopping malls.
At 8:30 on a late summer morning, students of various ages start showing up at the Woburn Sylvan Learning Center in this suburb of Boston. Inside a room that could easily pass as an upscale public-school library, three students sit at each U-shaped table surrounding a teacher.
"What does winter begin with?" one teacher asks a tiny first-grader sitting on the edge of his chair. Once that student is focused on the task at hand, the teacher turns to a burly high schooler one seat over. "What's the base word of insight?" she asks, pointing to a question on his worksheet.
Plastic blue tokens sit in piles next to every student. "You get one token for that," says a teacher in response to a correct answer. "Saying thank you is nice, but getting a token is even better," she adds.
"We use a token economy with students," explains Barbara Palermo, owner of this Sylvan Learning Center. "Students are rewarded for the kind of behavior we are trying to encourage. They accumulate wealth in a checkbook and spend as they choose."
In one corner, a store is stocked with toys and other goodies ranging from yo-yos and Nerf balls to earrings and Nintendo games.
"The way the token system works is a lesson in and of itself," Ms. Palermo says. "There is a relationship between work and reward. That's an important lesson for a child to learn."
But Ray Huntington, founder of Huntington Learning Centers, disagrees. "We do not believe in that approach," he says. "It is typically very difficult to wean a person off a token system of reward, and it does not instill the internal motivation that is necessary for a child to succeed."
Although some teachers and parents have expressed concern about the Sylvan token system to Palermo, she says most are supportive. "The reward system is a plus," says Diane Ranieri, who sends her eight-year-old twins to Sylvan. "The kids look forward to it."
The atmosphere at the Woburn center is relaxed. Students munch popcorn and sip apple juice while they work.
"I like it a lot," says Matthew Miele, a 15-year-old Sylvan student. "It doesn't really feel like school. The teachers are nice. They don't yell at you if you mess up. They'll explain to you over and over until you understand. Sometimes in school, they'll just hand out the stuff. Here, they go over the problems you miss."
Matthew began coming to Sylvan about six months ago. As a ninth-grader, he was reading at a sixth-grade level, and his vocabulary was tested at a fourth-grade level. "He has grown leaps and bounds in the short time that he's been here," says Paula Miele, Matthew's mother.
"I concentrated more on my studies and understood what I read, which is something I don't do a lot," Matthew says, explaining the improvement in his grades after he started coming to Sylvan.
Anne Saurman enrolled her 14-year-old son Christian at Sylvan because his reading level was a year and a half below what it should have been. "They taught him most of the skills that he was missing, and his reading is at grade level now," she says. "The biggest part of what he's gained is self-esteem."
Palermo makes a guarantee to parents: "From the minute that child walks through the door, he will not hear a discouraging word." You can't overestimate the power of positive reinforcement, she says. "It's most important that students leave with that sense of `I can do.' "
But all this comes at a price. Fees vary from center to center. At the Sylvan Center in Woburn, parents pay $265 a month (about $33 an hour). Huntington Learning Centers charge from $28 to $35 an hour.
"I guess I'm fortunate that I have a job and we can afford to send my child to Sylvan right now," Hennessy says. But like other parents, she says she feels some resentment about having to supplement the public-school education being paid for with tax dollars. "You feel that somehow the school has let you down."
Critics argue that these private centers are only widening the educational gap between rich and poor students.
"There's no argument against that," says Mr. Becker of Sylvan. "The fact is, we serve lucky kids. We serve kids whose parents care [about school performance], which is a subset of all parents, whose parents know there is a problem, whose parents can afford our service, and whose parents live near one of our 450-plus centers. But I will tell you that we're not content with that."
Huntington offers some scholarships to low-income students preparing for college-entrance exams. But, says Dr. Huntington, "my attitude is let's focus on those I know I can help rather than those I know I can't help."
Sylvan offers scholarships for needy students and tuition-financing programs but is looking for other ways to help students who don't live in the affluent suburbs where most centers are located.
Becker is negotiating with several superintendents of urban schools to open Sylvan Learning Centers on the premises of public schools. His idea is to finance the centers by using some of the $7 billion of federal Chapter 1 funds that are specifically earmarked for students performing below grade level.
"We're not interested in running public schools," Becker says. "But if we can take this one thing that we have replicated almost 500 times and replicate it in schools within their Chapter 1 budgets and produce better results, I think that's something that we need to experiment with."
The level of interest among superintendents has been surprising, Becker says. "We have about five major school districts that are considering proposals for three to five centers in schools on a test basis. Some could open as early as this coming school year."