Parents spend big bucks to give their children a leg up on good colleges IMPROVING THE ODDS

November 03, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

At 14, Nyjla Littlejohn seems about as destined for success in life as any teen can get. She is bright, articulate and motivated. Her grades at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia: A's and B's.

But her parents, Renee and Michael, aren't taking any chances.

They've signed Nyjla up with a private tutoring service to sharpen her math and study skills and learn time management. Three times a week, her school day is followed by an hour's worth of enrichment work at the Sylvan Learning Center in Columbia.

"We want to give her as much of an edge as possible for getting into one of the premium colleges and for the job market," explains Mr. Littlejohn, who works in the Army's human resources department at the Pentagon. "We have high expectations and goals for her."

That kind of thinking is helping to fuel a boom in the tutoring industry, which has also benefited from the increased willingness of middle-class parents to get private help when their kids falter in school.

Though one-person, home-based tutors still dominate the industry, tutoring has become big business.

Sylvan, which has 503 tutoring centers across the country, went public last year, selling $25 million of stock to fund a nationwide expansion. Huntington Learning Centers, another national tutoring company, reports revenues up 37 percent between 1991 and 1993.

Bright, high-achievers such as Nyjla now account for 30 percent to 40 percent of many tutors' clientele and could grow even larger, tutors say.

Some predict it will become common for students in affluent suburbs to trot off for private cramming sessions after they finish school. That spectacle is so common in Japan, they have a term for it: Juku.

"When I first started into this business it was primarily for the student needing remedial help," says Susan Rapp, who has tripled her client load at the Kumon Math and Village Reading Center in Columbia over the last three years. "Today I have many students who are either gifted and need some extra support, or who are achieving at an expected grade level, but lack strong study skills to advance."

For Nyjla Littlejohn, the tutoring sessions might mean missing some soccer practices. So she wasn't wild about the idea of spending so many afternoons at Sylvan.

"Actually, it's not as bad as I first thought it might be," Nyjla says. "I kind of like it. I want to have straight A's. That's a must for getting into a good college."

Parents like the Littlejohns are sinking hundreds or thousands of dollars into tutoring for their children. The phenonmenon amounts to a vote of no-confidence in the public schools, says Dr. Robert E. Slavin, one of the country's leading advocates of education reform and director of the elementary program of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

"The public is fast losing faith in the public school system," Dr. Slavin says. "More people are thinking that instead of trying to improve the system for everybody, they'll concentrate on improving what they can for their families. The growth in private tutoring has a lot to do with that thinking."

Public school systems don't seem to mind the trend. In fact some, like Howard County's, have helped private tutoring gain credibility by providing interested parents with lists of area tutors.

And large tutoring companies are using magazine and television advertising to attract clients. Sylvan launched a polished national TV ad campaign earlier this year to build name recognition and tout its services.

'This is fun'

It's mid-morning on a Saturday at the Sylvan Learning Center in Towson, and Theresa Hammond, a sprite 7-year-old from Baltimore, sports a perky grin as she hones her math skills by playing a computer game called Dinosoft.

"Everytime I go to school I want to cry. It's kind of boring. But this is fun," says Theresa beaming. "You get to play with games and take breaks."

The center is abuzz with about 20 other students, from Theresa's age to young teens. They work in groups of three and four with tutors for a time, then bounce to computer and board learning games or move off to tables alone to work on reading, writing or math assignments.

Theresa watches a cartoon-like dinosaur on the screen. The figure poses addition questions and Theresa selects what she believes is the correct answer from a group of flash cards that pop up on the screen.

For the next 15 minutes this game will be her "tutor."

As she works on the Dinosoft game, Theresa glances periodically to a corner of the room where shelves are stocked with colorful toys, games and trinkets.

Students who work hard during the tutoring sessions are rewarded with tokens, which they can either save or redeem for items on the shelves when their session is completed.

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