Tutoring firm credited with transforming public classrooms into oases of learning Experiment targets underachievers from needy homes

August 23, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

His mother, his teachers and the principal couldn't get over it: Little Larry Mayo sat in a classroom for 24 mornings this summer without so much as clenching a fist.

He had firmly established his reputation as a hot-tempered 7-year-old whose fights landed him in the principal's office at Thomas G. Hayes Elementary School no less than once a week in the spring.

But this summer, in another classroom at Thomas Hayes in East Baltimore, a machine that talked to him riveted Larry's attention. And a teacher rewarded correct answers about short and long vowels with regular doses of praise -- and tokens good for Nerf hoops, plastic car phones and all sorts of other goodies.

The classroom where Larry studied this summer, the place where he learned to love reading and learning, has been transformed by Sylvan Learning Centers, the nation's largest tutoring firm.

As part of a yearlong Baltimore City experiment to help 800 poor children who have fallen as much as three grades behind in reading and math, Sylvan brought its private tutoring methods to public school classrooms for the first time last spring.

Parents pay nothing for the tutoring, which normally costs around $30 an hour. At six Baltimore elementary schools, Sylvan relied on mostly federal and some state money funneled through the city school system to re-create a classroom in the image of the 500 private tutoring centers the company runs in the United States and Canada.

Walls got fresh paint, scuffed linoleum floors got new carpet -- all in Sylvan's standard soft beiges or baby blues, colors chosen for their reputed calming effect.

The blackboards came down, and each child got a little slate.

Horseshoe-shaped tables where each teacher works with just a few students replaced rows of battered desks.

Computers, games, machines that show pictures, talk to students and record them talking back supplement one-on-one exercises with teachers and more traditional texts and storybooks.

Instead of a single line in a grade book, each child gets an inch-thick "prescription plan," updated with an evaluation at the end of each hour of instruction.

School, says Larry Mayo, was never like this.

On a muggy summer morning when everybody's thankful for the new air-conditioner humming in a window of the Sylvan classroom, he takes a break from repeating what he hears into a machine that records him as he reads from a card: "B-R goes 'brrr' like brag."

"This is so much more fun than regular school," says Larry, a slight boy who wears black high tops, a T-shirt and shorts and will start third grade in two weeks. "Everybody in here's working, not like regular school. Nobody's running around, jumping on desks and fighting. And you get to buy stuff."

Precisely what stuff bewilders Shantel Pearson for a time.

After figuring out the main idea in a story about porcupines, the 9-year-old with a head full of pink, purple and tangerine polka-dot barrettes collects yet another token and heads for the Sylvan Store.

Children get 10 minutes to shop there after working 50 minutes of an hourlong session.

As Shantel counts her take, a smile that rarely goes away lights up her face. She checks out spiral key chains, wallets, stop watches, jump ropes, plastic games with balls and water marbles inside and a whole lot more behind glass doors in a 6-foot-high, free-standing cabinet.

She settles on a multicolored, neon change purse that goes around her wrist, then writes a check for the amount to "Sylvan Learning Center" and enters the purchase in one of the Sylvan checkbooks each student gets -- and maintains religiously.

Like a job

"I feel like I'm on the job," Shantel says. "I used to think schoolwork was so hard, but it's not so hard."

She will stay in school, she says, and one day, she'll get a real job -- "I want to teach the little children," she says -- and make real money. Getting a job would make her something of an anomaly in her extended family.

Her mother and her aunt support the household using public assistance. It's a stretch.

In the Somerset Court public housing project across North Central Avenue from Thomas Hayes, Shantel lives with her mother, her grandmother, a sister, a brother, an aunt and four cousins.

Principal Peggy Jackson-Jobe sees so many households like this -- no jobs, one parent, eight, 10 people living under one roof. She knows what her students face daily in the projects.

On a summer's day, unemployed men, women, teen-agers and children sweat away the hours on the corners and on the stoops, seeking a respite from the searing heat of the brick projects. By night, drug dealers, some of whom now get around on motorized mini-bikes, take to the streets, and gunfire pierces the air sporadically.

A tiny fraction of the 469 students' parents finished high school, and few of them have steady work. Two-parent households prove the rare exception. All but about a dozen of the students get free or reduced-price lunches because their families can't afford them.

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