Sylvan project reaps results in pupil scores

July 28, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's "other" experiment in school privatization got a good first-year report card yesterday, and officials said they hoped to expand the services of Sylvan Learning Systems to a seventh elementary school and a senior high school.

Sylvan's tutoring program, established at elementary schools in several of the city's poorest neighborhoods under a $1.4 million contract, significantly increased reading scores in four of six schools and mathematics scores in four of five, company and school officials announced.

Scores on the same national test were nowhere near as encouraging for the eight "Tesseract" schools operated by Education Alternatives Inc. of Minneapolis. Those scores, released last month, showed a decline in reading achievement and a slight increase in math skills over a two-year period.

The two firms offer much different services. While EAI takes over entire schools, from teaching to maintenance, Sylvan's program is supplemental, covering only reading and math.

Students attend Sylvan instruction twice a week for an hour during the regular academic day. The student-tutor ratio never exceeds 3-to-1. Working with computers and selected instructional materials, students accumulate tokens for completing work and turn them in at a "store" for items ranging from pencils to wristwatches.

Sylvan also guarantees results, crediting the district with additional remedial instruction at the company's expense when students fail to meet goals specified in its contract.

"The difference between us and EAI is that we're trying to turbocharge an existing car, while EAI is trying to rebuild the engine," said Douglas L. Becker, the 28-year-old president of Columbia-based Sylvan.

The Sylvan scores were announced yesterday at one of its centers, the Thomas G. Hayes Elementary School in East Baltimore. Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said the one-year results "show that it is possible to have quick gains." He said he hoped the "good news about this partnership" would lead to city approval of two more Sylvan centers, at Harford Heights Elementary and Lake Clifton-Eastern High School.

Sylvan operates 500 franchised centers nationwide. Its effort in six Baltimore schools was its first foray as a contractor in public education. In March, it added two Baltimore middle schools under a $1.3 million contract funded by the state. Mr. Becker said the Baltimore venture has been "marginally profitable."

Partly because it is a tutoring program financed by federal "Chapter 1" money, Sylvan has met with little of the opposition encountered by Tesseract. Chapter 1 money is aimed at schools in low-income areas.

Samuel L. Banks, who heads Baltimore's Chapter 1 programs, has called Tesseract "a disaster." But he said the Sylvan approach is "well-organized, systematic and meticulous."

But Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union, a vehement opponent of privatization, said, "The concern of teachers is that we're spending this money just after a real [federal] cutback in Chapter 1."

Students were tested in the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, the test used in the Maryland school performance program. Overall scores increased 14 "normal curve equivalents" in math and 1.5 equivalents in reading. Roughly equivalent to a percentile scale, the curve equivalent scale ranges from 1 to 99, with 50 as the national average.

William Caritj, the school system's director of student assessment, said the best showing was among those pupils who had at least 50 hours of Sylvan tutoring. Their scores increased by 18 equivalents in math.

Of the six schools, only Robert Coleman Elementary showed a significant decrease, and officials said they didn't know why. In addition to Coleman and Hayes, Sylvan centers were set up at Madison Square, William Paca, Fort Worthington and Elmer Henderson elementary schools.

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