Futurekids centers focus on children's natural curiosity about computers

March 10, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

They are not exactly your garden-variety computer hackers, Sean and Stasia. But for the moment, they are transfixed by a computer graphics program at the Futurekids Computer Learning Center as if it were the latest episode of the popular "Power Rangers" television show.

A fidgety Stasia Golembiewski, sporting a pink bow in her hair and matching pink dress, says she's partial to a rabbit icon on the screen. Her computer mate, Sean Pines, looks as if he's more ready for a spin around the block on a tricycle than an hour at the computer.

These two are, after all, only 4 years old.

They can't read, but they sure seem to know their way around a computer keyboard. And during a recent class their attention was not hard to hold for Ken Wilmers as he walked them through the rudiments of desktop publishing.

"Children have a natural curiosity about computers," says Mr. Wilmers, owner and operator of the Columbia center of Futurekids, which offers computer training classes strictly for youngsters.

Classes, which run for a month each, range from showing children the innards of computers (they actually dissect a PC) and the function of each part to working with data bases and computerized multimedia.

"Every class we teach, we want the kids to come away from it with a skill they can actually use in everyday life," says Mr. Wilmers.

Mr. Wilmers says his biggest hurdle in marketing Futurekids service has been parents' mistaken impression that "if their kid plays with Genesis or Sega, then they are computer literate.

"Genesis and Sega are games, not computer skills," says Mr. Wilmers.

Company founder Peter Markovitz says the company has found itself competing not against another company offering similar instruction but against "art, dance and sports." In Howard, Mr. Wilmers says his biggest business threat comes from hugely popular recreational youth soccer programs.

The former AlliedSignal accountant has found his greatest marketing success by pitching Futurekids services at "Technology Nights" at area schools.

The company organizes the events at the request of area PTAs.

Futurekids sets up PCs at the evening seminars and shows parents and kids how to use some of the latest software, giving Mr. Wilmers a chance make his pitch about computer literacy.

The strategy has started to pay off for the local franchise, which opened about a year ago and covers Howard and Prince George's counties.

The aim of Futurekids, a national franchiser based in Los Angeles, is a novel niche in the computer training market: children ages 4-15.

The company has built its success on the educational need for computer literacy and childrens' curiosity about computers. But a prime ingredient in the Futurekids system, Mr. Markovitz says, is that children "want to be treated like customers when it comes to education."

"A lot of kids' frustration and anger about education comes from how they are taught and treated in school," Mr. Markovitz says. "We found through research that if you treated children more like a customer, and made the learning environment fun, they'd respond."

That approach seems to be working.

In 10 years the privately held company has grown to 350 franchises, and it was rated in 1992 as one of the top 20 small business opportunities in the nation by Entrepreneur magazine.

Mr. Wilmers says 98 percent of his clients keep their children enrolled for additional classes.

He says his franchise has grown so fast because area parents believe public and private schools are not providing strong programs for computer literacy.

"A lot of parents today have a computer on their desks at work and they see just how important computer literacy is becoming to jobs of the future," says Mr. Wilmers. "They want their kids to be computer literate for good reason."

Howard County is clearly a target environment for this business. For one, it has a preponderance of families with children -- 28 percent of the population is under age 19. The median household income is $54,348, and 46 percent of the county's populace have college degrees.

The $25,000 franchise fee that Mr. Wilmers paid appears to be a solid investment, he says, as Howard County has emerged as one of the most receptive areas in the nation for Futurekids.

"We are the fastest-growing [Futurekids] center in the country," Mr. Wilmers says.

Futurekids Learning Center in Columbia, which for now serves the entire franchise area, has about 200 children currently enrolled at the Dorsey's Search Village Center location or in after-school programs at seven public and private elementary schools in Howard and Prince George's counties.

The cost for classes ranges between $45 and $79 at the Columbia center, one of eight in Maryland.

Children attend the monthlong classes -- this month it's "Megabyte Zoo," for children who can't yet read and "Club Modem" for readers -- attend once a week for 40 to 50 minutes.

Futurekids' system is based on small class sizes -- no more than four -- allowing more time on the computer and close attention from teachers, says Mr. Wilmers.

Children work in pairs on IBM compatible PCs.

"Pairing kids up on the computers fosters cooperative learning. Good or bad, kids learn quickest from one another," says Mr. Wilmers.

But, of course, for anyone who has children, pairing kids up on anything is fraught with the potential for conflict.

Young Sean and Stasia demonstrated this recently as they tussled over whose turn it was to use the keyboard and mouse.

Mr. Wilmers, their instructor, gingerly refereed the test of wills and avoided a breakdown in the cooperative spirit.

"We look more for instructors who can develop a good rapport with children than people who have teaching qualifications," says Mr. Markovitz, the founder. "We want the classes to have a sense of adventure."

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