Sylvan to launch free reading site today on Internet

`Completely altruistic' project seeks to boost primary reading skills

Students can earn prizes

April 21, 1999|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., the Baltimore educational services company that has had great success with its bottom line, will launch a free Internet site today to increase reading skills among elementary school students that it hopes will cement its image among educators and parents.

The company, which posted a profit of $35.7 million last year and is close to purchasing a university in Spain, is expected to invest more than $2 million in the new program through its 2-year-old nonprofit group, Sylvan Learning Foundation.

"The one area we most wanted to invest in is reading," said Douglas Becker, the company's president and co-chief executive who is also president of the foundation.

"We have enormous pride in bringing this project to the world," Becker said of the program, which has been in development for nearly two years.

"This is unrelated to our commercial enterprise. This is completely altruistic."

The program, called Book Adventure, allows students to select books from a list of recommended titles found on the Web site. After reading a book, students return to the Web site to answer multiple-choice questions about it.

Students then earn points redeemable for prizes from corporate sponsors such as barnesandnoble.com and Lycos Inc.

Sylvan views Book Adventure as a philanthropic measure to help balance its growing -- and lucrative -- presence in the education industry, Becker said.

"Being in the business of education means straddling a very important line. We want to be respected as educators and we want to run a solid business," Becker said. "We would like to think we manage that balance, and Book Adventure is one of the many things we do to show that."

Sylvan was founded in 1979 as a small tutoring company. Becker and his partners purchased half of the company in 1990, and acquired the rest within three years.

Since then, the company has developed into one of the world's largest providers of educational services, including private tutoring, consulting and testing for academic admissions and professional certification.

Sylvan signed a definitive purchase agreement this month to acquire 54 percent of a for-profit university in Spain for $51 million. The acquisition will be Sylvan's launching point for a network of universities in Europe and Latin America, the company said.

Revenue up 47%

For 1998, Sylvan's revenue increased 47 percent to $440.3 million. It posted a profit of $35.7 million. First-quarter earnings will be released today.

Scott L. Soffen, an analyst at Legg Mason Inc. in Baltimore, said the degree to which the company can make a connection between Sylvan and good deeds will help the company.

"I don't view making a profit and providing a quality education in any way contradictory goals," Soffen said. "I'm certain their return on charitable investment is not as good as other things they could do.

"But I believe altruism is part of the personality of the company."

In 1997, the company used one-third of that year's profit to create the Sylvan Learning Foundation to support public education initiatives in Baltimore and across the country. The foundation is now worth $11 million.

The foundation has been active in various educational efforts around the city, including a recent effort to donate 25,000 new books to 25 city schools.

Becker is also chairman of the Port Discovery children's museum near the Inner Harbor. The foundation has donated about $2 million to that effort, Becker said.

The foundation will be the lead sponsor of Book Adventure. It is in negotiations with other corporate sponsors to support the program's estimated yearly costs of $500,000, Becker said.

Maggi G. Gaines, executive director of Baltimore Reads, a nonprofit literacy group, said she had to first gauge Sylvan's sincerity before signing on with the project.

"Education is big business, and we're naive if we don't understand that," said Gaines, who sits on Book Adventure's educational advisory committee. "When I look at Sylvan, I see a corporation that's bottom-line-driven and philanthropy-driven.

"Those two things are compatible when executed properly," she said.

The Book Adventure Web site is www.bookadventure.org or www.bookadventure.com.

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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