Children conquer computers Private businesses teaching kids to be computer literate.

August 26, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

Nine-year-old Kate Hyatt, still giddy from her victory in a mock computer "Olympics," sits glued to a monitor and keyboard as she manipulates a simulated juggler into catching letters that are hurled through the air.

The game is called Alphabet Circus, but it's more than just fun. It teaches young computer novices to get comfortable with the keyboard.

Later, they can learn where to properly position their fingers.

But Kate Hyatt isn't learning the computer feats at the school she attends in Baltimore County.

Like an increasing number of children, she's enrolled in a computer class that is not part of the public or private educational systems.

Instead, two groups of savvy entrepreneurs have moved in to fulfill a need they say is not being met in traditional schools.

In the process, hundreds of franchises have surfaced nationwide to enroll thousands of youngsters into intensive computer training courses, most of them after school or in summer camps.

Peter Markovitz, president of Futurekids, is one of those entrepreneurs.

His Los Angeles company has grown in eight years from one center to more than 100 franchises in the United States, Canada and Japan.

Markovitz calls the growth in computer learning franchises the "privatization of education."

The people who buy his franchises, he says, understand that schools "are failing to provide adequate computer preparation.

"They also understand that mothers and fathers adore their children and if you can provide something for them that is educational and fun, they will enroll their children in it just as they would enroll them in dance or art classes," he says.

The course Kate Hyatt attends, in fact, is at the Futurekids learning center in Lutherville on West Joppa Road.

Beth Hyatt, Kate's mother and a Baltimore County teacher, says she enrolled Kate and her brother because she believes in computer literacy and because public and private schools are not doing enough.

"With young children, computers have become a necessity," Beth Hyatt says. "When they get to middle school and high school, they need to know word processing."

Ellen Saval and Susan Surell bought the Baltimore County franchise for Futurekids last November and opened their first learning center in March. Business, they say, is booming and they plan to open another center later this year in Montgomery County.

Saval and Surell say they see between 80 and 100 students a week, and while the sessions are academic, they are also fun. "We have to literally peel the kids off the computers at the end of a session," Surell says.

Tapping parents' concerns about computer literacy has created a growth industry.

In addition to Futurekids there is Computertots, based in Great Falls, Va., the only other computer learning franchiser in the country.

Computertots has sold more than 42 franchises in 22 states in the past four years, says co-owner Mary Rogers.

Computertots, coincidentally, also began as a single learning center in 1983. There were 10 students that year, says Rogers. This fall Computertots expects to enroll 12,000.

The Computertots and Future- kids operations in Maryland are spread out over seven counties: Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Calvert, Howard, Prince Georges and Montgomery.

While Futurekids owners operate generally out of learning centers where parents bring their children, Computertots owners focus on going to local schools to market their services.

Once Computertots has gained permission from a principal or director, parents enroll students in classes that are normally held after school on school property.

Rogers said that going into the schools translates into lower overhead and lower enrollment costs at Computertots.

A Computertots session of four once-a-week courses costs $24 to $32. A similar Futurekids session can cost between $55 and $105.

However, Markovitz says that overhead and the more advanced training involved at Futurekids makes enrollment prices higher. Advanced training means more sophisticated and expensive software.

Computertots targets the three-year-old to five-year-old group. Futurekids focuses on children ages five to 13.

There also is a big difference in the costs of buying a territory from one of the two franchisers.

While a Computertots franchise goes for $19,500, a Futurekids franchise can run from $40,000 to $60,000.

Both companies promise the use of their trademarks, and they provide training, curriculum guides, software and marketing materials in the price of a franchise. Futurekids adds the cost of four computers to its charge, said Markovitz.

Computertots requires that its franchise buyers purchase their own equipment, and recommends spending between $6,000 and $8,000 to start.

How much profit a franchise holder can hope to make is difficult to gauge. Rogers says that a lot depends on how much work is invested in the new business.

In Lutherville, Saval and Surell won't say how much they're making, but they do say that they're putting all of their profit toward opening their Montgomery County center.

Barbara Knickman, who has held Computertots franchises in Anne Arundel, Calvert and Carroll counties for two years, says that once a franchise holder has at least six schools signed up and a minimum of 12 children enrolled at each school, the up to 25 percent of the earnings to be profit.

Knickman says she feels she has recouped her initial investment, and says Computertots is "one of the few businesses that you see some profit early on. You don't have to wait five years."

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