Giving students a 'safety net' Tutoring: At the for-profit Sylvan Learning Center, children receive the individual attention that gives them the chance to learn.

Education Beat

March 15, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THERE SHOULDN'T be a bustling Sylvan Learning Center smack-dab in the middle of Howard County, where all children are above average.

Still, there it is in downtown Columbia: a Sylvan center tutoring kids in the reading, writing, math and study skills that most didn't pick up in school.

The Columbia center of the Baltimore-based company is one of the 20 busiest in an international chain of 700 centers. Each week, 165 kids crowd into the bright Sylvan classrooms after school and in the early evening.

It's not exactly one-on-one instruction, since students are assigned three to a tutor. But it's individualized. Children enter // the Sylvan stream at any time. (February and June, when parents see third- and fourth-quarter report cards, are the busiest months.)

Students are given tests to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. Then they're prescribed individual programs to make them skilled and confident learners. For this, parents spend about $320 a month.

Education Beat spent Wednesday at the Columbia center, watching and talking to tutors, students and parents, many of whom wait for their kids in a reception area that looks like the one at the doctor's office.

Jordan Goldberg is the Sylvan king of tokens. Jordan, a 6-year-old with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), has earned a record 341 tokens, his rewards for good work in tutoring sessions. Tokens are redeemable for prizes, and Jordan already has won a skateboard.

He's a cute kid, a chatterbox with an interest in tornadoes -- appropriate, says his mother, Susan, to his disability.

Jordan's mother says he fell behind in kindergarten at Pointers Run Elementary in Clarksville, "not because he wasn't bright, but because of his learning style. We looked on Sylvan as a safety net."

Goldberg says proudly that her son is "working at grade level now." Jordan's tutor, Adrienne McClure, agrees. "I can see the difference in Jordan almost daily," she reports. "At first he wanted to talk about everything but reading, but now he enjoys reading. He gets right to work. He finishes on time, and he's ready to start the next day at school."

Adds Goldberg: "It's silly, but one of my biggest thrills was a couple of months ago when Jordan looked at the back of a soda bottle and saw a little promotional game. It said you could look under the cap to see if you won a prize, and he could read it! He could read it!"

McClure's approach to tutoring is carefully dictated by Sylvan. While two students do workbook exercises, she deals with the third student at her U-shaped table. She keeps track of progress in a notebook, passing out tokens for good performance. Each student gets about 20 minutes of one-on-one instruction in an hour.

Reading instruction at Sylvan emphasizes explicit phonics. "The main deficits," says McClure, by day a third-grade teacher in Prince George's County, "are the beginning sounds, the vowel sounds and the decoding" -- the breaking of words into their sounds.

Jennifer Kraft simply wasn't getting it in the primary grades at Ilchester Elementary in Ellicott City, says her mother, Donna.

"She had trouble reading from the first grade," Kraft says of Jennifer, now a freckle-faced fourth-grader. "We had her tutored, but it just didn't work out. After the first and second grade, when they'd do word problems -- like Jimmy has four marbles and Johnny has six, how many more does Johnny have? -- she couldn't do it because she couldn't read the problem.

"Her lack of reading skills affected everything else. She was good at math at first, but she started falling behind."

Jennifer, who turned 10 Friday, is another Sylvan success story. After five months at the center, she has advanced a full grade in reading. She's even staying inside at recess to dive into a book.

"Reading is easier for me now because I can understand the words better," says Jennifer. There are 28 students in her class at school, she says, "and it's hard for my teacher to teach because some of the kids start yelling out. Today she almost broke into tears."

Donna Kraft tries to be understanding about her daughter's struggle at school, but it's difficult.

"Basically, you have to be really, really far behind before they'll identify you as needing help, and Jennifer was just OK. So they really have a low standard. Last year they gave her five minutes a day with a special ed teacher, but what can you do with five minutes? I think they feel like we don't have to worry about this child because her mother will take care of it."

Jennifer and Jordan, the token king, are Sylvan success stories. The company no doubt has failures, too, though it guarantees that students who fail to advance a full grade in 36 hours of instruction (as measured by nationally recognized tests) will get 12 free hours.

Stephen A. Rifici, the Columbia center director, says the guarantee is rarely invoked. It shouldn't have to be. The largest for-profit tutoring company in the world is clearly on to a good thing. It provides services on a nearly one-to-one basis, guarantees success and returns a nice profit by paying tutors $8 to $13 an hour while charging parents from $36 to $44 per hour. You do the math.

It's a clever and unapologetic application of the profit motive to a normally nonprofit service. No institution called "school" can match it.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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