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Learning Centers : Grooming Students for Extra Edge

Times Education Writer

After an illuminating morning session with fellow campers in a Pitzer College classroom at Claremont, soon-to-be high school freshman Eric Fagan, 14, was, in his own words, totally “stoked.”

“I’m 48% kinesthetic and 49% visual!” the San Diego youngster exclaimed after taking a test that showed he absorbs information better by seeing and feeling it as opposed to hearing it.

The teen-ager was a participant in Supercamp, an unusual--and, at $1,375 for 10 days, expensive--summer program for students seeking that extra edge to get ahead in school. Offering a combination of academic and confidence-building sessions in skills ranging from note-taking and speed reading to tightrope walking and tree climbing, it represents the latest wrinkle in an expanding, multimillion-dollar industry.

Thrive on Parents’ Anxieties

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Promising to raise students’ grades and self-esteem, the proliferating learning centers and camps thrive on parents’ anxieties about whether little Johnny or Jessica will have enough smarts to make it into a top-ranked college and succeed in life--and about whether public schools can adequately prepare them for the challenge.

In the expanding education-for-profit field, businesses range from special summer camps that offer to teach students how to learn--such as the Del Mar-based Supercamp and the Northern California-based Active Learning--to year-round tutoring centers that specialize in one-on-one instruction in reading and mathematics.

Best-known of the tutoring centers are The Reading Game (known as Britannica Learning Centers on the East Coast), founded in 1970 and with 107 centers nationwide, and the spinoff Sylvan Learning Centers, nicknamed the McDonald’s of education because most of its 450 outlets are franchises.

Both companies were founded by former Orange County educators and were bought by conglomerates in 1985--Sylvan by Kindercare Inc. for $5.2 million, and The Reading Game by Encyclopaedia Britannica Co. for $6.5 million. They charge fees of $25 to $31 an hour, depending on the type of tutoring, and typically recommend lessons once or twice a week for four to six months.

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Tokens as Motivators

As part of its marketing strategy, Sylvan guarantees that students will improve their reading or math skills by at least one grade level after 36 hours of instruction or it will provide up to 12 free lessons. Such guarantees raise eyebrows among some educators, who consider such promises unethical. The Reading Game is careful not to make outright guarantees but claims that its pupils typically show two months of progress for every month of tutoring.

Both companies motivate youngsters by providing tokens that can be redeemed for prizes ranging from skateboards to the latest music tapes, and both choose their sites carefully, preferring shopping malls deep in the heart of suburbia. All Reading Game instructors are state certified, but Sylvan teachers are not required to have teaching credentials.

Critics say the services are too expensive and benefit primarily the already-privileged, although to counter such complaints some of the companies have begun to offer scholarships. Other criticisms are that they often rely on gimmicks, they are too heavily focused on improving test scores through drill and practice methods and they cannot substantiate their success claims with solid, independent research.

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“When it comes to hard research to confirm how much value they have, I don’t think that is available,” said William Clay Parrish, an associate director of research for the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals. “Almost all of these (programs) have some value, but whether or not the value will equate with the cost, I couldn’t say. I would hate to see a kid or a parent be stuck with some horrendous fee for attending a program that could be obtained much more reasonably in their community or in the public or private schools.”

Others suggest that shortcomings of public education virtually ensure a market for commercial learning centers. The Sylvan and Reading Game tutoring centers, for instance, promise that each instructor is assigned to work with no more than three students at a time--an ideal arrangement that public schools cannot begin to compete with.

“If we could provide one-on-one (instruction), we would have the same effect,” said Jackie Goldberg, a Los Angeles school board member. “These places provide personal, caring attention, and it works. We’ve known that for a long time in public education, but we haven’t had the resources to do it.”

Moreover, the teaching of study skills--which is essentially what the summer learning camps provide--occurs on a haphazard basis in school, depending on the individual teacher.

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‘Overlooked by Schools’

“If we have organized approaches to learning information,” said Janet Ewart Eddy, a USC learning specialist who counsels college students with deficient study skills, “it is much easier to learn and to remember. That is something that is often overlooked by the schools.”

The popularity of the learning services “in part must be a reflection of middle-class parents’ disappointment with public schools,” said James Guthrie, a UC Berkeley education professor and co-director of the nonprofit Policy Analysis for California Education research center. “I know parents who use (the commercial tutoring centers), and they say they have to because they can’t get enough out of their public school.”

The tutoring centers may be the closest equivalent in the United States to the Japanese “cram schools,” the after-school schools where the brightest students go to get ahead of their classmates and prepare for college entrance examinations.

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The value of that comparison is not lost on the managers of learning businesses here: “Parents do have a sense of competition with the Japanese school system, (where) tutorial services are part of the culture,” said Paula Singer, vice president for marketing for American Learning Corp., the subsidiary of Encyclopaedia Britannica Co. that operates The Reading Game.

According to a recent international mathematics study, for instance, the average Japanese student performed at a higher level than the top 5% of American students enrolled in college-preparatory mathematics courses. “American parents are very concerned about giving their children the tools to compete,” Singer said.

At Active Learning, 3,500 high school students, mostly from public schools, paid $1,450 each this summer to study for six days on college campuses in Northern and Southern California. Said Sherman Oaks parent Constance Johnson, whose 16-year-old son Jay attended a session held at USC in July: “Parents do feel they are not getting enough out of their school. That is the general feeling. My son has been in public and private schools, and I have been disappointed with both.”

Parent Surrogates

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Landon Carter, a Harvard Business School graduate who co-founded Active Learning in 1986 with Peter Lenn, a Mill Valley education consultant, said their instructors to a large extent act as parent surrogates, giving students academic advice that parents would give if only their children would listen to them.

“We say (to students) we want to be your friend, your consultant and your coach,” Carter said. “We position ourselves on the student’s side . . . and we ask, ‘How are we going to make (school) better for you?’ ”

At the beginning of the session, each student is handed a glossy, 2-inch-thick manual divided into 23 lessons that students are allowed to complete at their own pace.

The manual essentially provides students with a systematic approach to studying, complete with forms to fill out that help them outline the requirements for each of their school courses--such as what types of tests they will be expected to take (essays or multiple choice) and what activities they must perform to prepare for the exams (read newspapers and books or watch films).

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In addition, with the aid of videotape machines for instant feedback, they learn how to overcome shyness and speak effectively in front of their classemates.

Classes are small, with two instructors for every 16 students and run from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. The atmosphere is low-key but serious. Instructors, who are required to have teaching credentials, constantly hover or crouch when helping students so as to avoid literally talking down to them.

In the positive, easygoing camp atmosphere, some students say they learn that they are not as dumb as they often are made to feel in school.

In regular school, “teachers dog you out, cut you down, if you don’t get it,” said Mike McIntyre, 14, who attends Valley Christian High School in Cerritos. “The teachers here build you up. They’re always complimenting you on what you do and don’t look at you like you’re stupid if you ask questions.”

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Carter said most students report that they are able to apply what they have learned once they return to school. And, according to an Active Learning survey, 80% of the program’s 70 graduates in 1986 raised their marks by one full letter grade by the end of the year. To help ensure that the students do not slack off, the steep tuition fee includes six follow-up sessions during the year. Students are also invited to call their instructors for consultations whenever needed.

Successes Cited

Like Active Learning, Supercamp, which was founded in 1982 by Eric Jensen and Bobbi DePorter, holds its sessions on college campuses. According to DePorter, who owned a business school in Vermont before starting the camp, two out of three of the 4,500 teen-agers who have gone through the program improved their grades by one letter grade and raised their SAT scores by an average of 70 points.

Workshops teach students tricks such as how to memorize 15 unrelated items in five minutes or cut their reading time in half through speed-reading. The curriculum is liberally sprinkled with jazzy pop terms such as “mind-mapping,” an approach to note-taking that uses key words and pictures. Compared to its chief rival, Supercamp places more emphasis on making learning fun.

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During a recent morning session at Pitzer on writing, for instance, teacher Richard Holicky passed out “magic pens"--ballpoint pens with different colors of ink--for a lesson on how to “cluster” ideas for an essay assignment.

Along the way, he tossed in a little pop psychology, pointing out to students that they use the “right brain” for brainstorming and the “left brain” for editing, revising and rewriting. Midway through, an assistant turned up the stereo and, to the accompaniment of a rousing rock beat, the 20 high school students in the class stood up to stretch and change seats.

The program stresses personal as much as academic development, incorporating physically demanding exercises not designed for the faint-hearted, such as climbing 50-foot trees with ropes and leaping onto a trapeze. Such daunting tests are meant to help weak students develop self-confidence that they can apply to tackling schoolwork.

“You feel like you can conquer all your problems,” said Ryan Ihly, 14, of Laguna Beach, who attends a prep school in Connecticut and whose ambition is to “go to Yale and be a Donald Trump.”

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While the learning camps cater to teen-agers, a typical Reading Game center looks more like Romper Room, cheerily decorated in a red, white and blue color scheme.

1st Reading Lesson

On a recent day at The Reading Game in Glendale, for example, nine students, most ranging from preschool to sixth grade, worked quietly at tables, including 4-year-old Carlos Yates who was concentrating on his first reading lesson.

He traced the letter “o” several times with crayons, circled the “o” in a set of simple words and practiced pronouncing words with the “o” sound, such as toe. At the end of the hour, his instructor, Amy Wiles, gave him a token, which he promptly and gleefully redeemed for a tiny blue toy car.

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The instruction is divided into four parts--"word attack” or phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and application of skills--and the teachers measure their students’ progress with the California Achievement Test, a standardized test used by many school districts, said center director Mildred McDuffie.

Constance Weaver, director of the National Council of Teachers of English commission on reading, said she questioned the focus on skill testing found in the large commercial tutoring centers. The trend in schools nationally is away from heavy drill and practice, which educators say deadens enjoyment of reading, in favor of reading classic literature.

“Are (these centers) really helping children read better, or are they just helping them do a better job on reading tests? If you are spending all your time practicing and testing,” she said, “you are not spending time on reading.”

Carlos’ mother, Carmen Yates of Toluca Lake, said she enrolled him at the Glendale center because she wants him to be able to read by the time he enters kindergarten next year.

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“He doesn’t know the alphabet yet. I hope he starts reading, recognizing letters and begins to form sentences,” she said. Concerned that they do not receive enough attention in school, she also enrolled her daughters, Yvette, 9, and Carmen, 8.

On a recent afternoon at the Sylvan Learning Center tucked in a corner of a Northridge shopping mall, Chatsworth parent Susan Horwitz was waiting for a consultation with center director Neil Scheingold. She enrolled her son Brian, a sixth-grader in a private school in the San Fernando Valley, in Sylvan’s math program two years ago because his math scores indicated he was only performing at grade level--and she expected him to be doing much better.

Moves to Advanced Group

“I expect a private school to be two grade levels above,” said Horwitz, a former public schoolteacher, “so I called Sylvan.” After several months of tutoring, Brian moved into an advanced math group in his school last year.

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“We’re dealing with very educated parents in this part of the city,” said William Johnston, who owns the Sylvan center in Northridge as well as one in Woodland Hills. “Typically, both parents are college-educated . . . middle-class and with high expectations for their kids. They know what the situation in school is (and they know) to get the individual attention their youngster needs, this is the most viable alternative.”

Gail Hydle of Reseda has been taking her son Andrew to the Northridge tutoring center since May. Although she said it is too early to tell if his lagging math skills are improving with tutoring, she said she is happy that he is now “getting the individual attention he deserves.” Andrew, 10, said the lessons are “kind of fun” and he especially likes the prize system.

Brian Horwitz, 11, said he also liked going to Sylvan because “they give tokens away if you do good.” The last reward he collected was an Oingo Boingo music cassette.

But he also said, “I want to be able to work faster and . . . go to a good college. I want to be a plastic surgeon and make a lot of money.”

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