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Private Education Firms Discovering A Lucrative Market in Public Schools

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Three times a week during study hall, students at Lindblom Technical High School on Chicago's South Side are taking a "study dynamics" course inspired by the famous speed-reading instructor Evelyn Wood.

The course's current owner, the American Learning Corporation, is offering it in classes at Lindblom and two other public schools in Chicago for a nominal fee. And school officials are using federal Chapter 1 money to pick up the tab.

Across the country, in the affluent New Jersey town of Upper Saddle River, public elementary-school students are engaged in another kind of for-profit learning experience. Instructors from Berlitz International Inc., the company that has taught generations of corporate executives, is teaching pupils Spanish, Japanese, and other foreign languages.

Says Upper Saddle River's superintendent, Thomas J. Benson: "It's a reasonable way to take a good look at a language program without investing in all the materials and staff."

And in Medford, Ore., a county seat in the southwestern part of the state near the Washington border, the Sylvan Learning Corporation, a leader in the burgeoning supplemental-education field, is contracting with several private schools to provide remedial after-school instruction to disadvantaged students through its private learning centers. Here, too, the courses are being supported by federal Chapter 1 funds.

The examples represent what some are predicting may be a growing trend in coming years: the use of for-profit companies by schools to provide services that lie at the heart of their educational mission.

Private learning companies, which have boomed in the past two decades by opening after-school instructional centers, now are setting their sights on contracting with school systems to offer instruction directly in the classroom.

The national firms hope to use their marketing savvy to capitalize on a potentially huge new area--in-school services or contracts with schools to provide after-school remedial instruction.

Continued success in moving into the schools would enable the "supplemental learning" companies to open up a market among students whose parents have been unable on their own to afford the expensive after-school services offered in private centers. And, in the case of disadvantaged students, some of the firms have been able to get federal compensatory-education funds to pay for their services.

Just Like Food Service?

While public schools' use of private educational contractors is still too new to have drawn much systematic study, the practice seems likely to generate growing debate if it continues.

Backers of the idea say that such contracting allows schools to benefit from outside firms' expertise in specific academic subjects and supplement their own possibly depleted teaching staffs without bearing the expense of finding and hiring regular employees in those areas.

"The schools are looking for new ways to solve problems," observes Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and director of the Educational Excellence Network. ''This is no different than when they contract with some food dealer to provide food in the lunchroom."

But a massive shift to "privatization" of the classroom could pose a significant threat to many educational interests, particularly the teachers' unions, whose officials for now say they are keeping an open mind about the idea while maintaining a watchful eye.

"We are concerned any time privatization starts taking over the functions of a school district," says Dale Boatright, assistant director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers. "But there should be options available to the district. If we can keep some of those kids in school with an alternative learning system, then it may be worth a look."

"These services are obviously needs that the system wants to meet," says Sharon Robinson, director of instruction and professional development for the National Education Association. "The only way they can meet them is through these for-profit vendors."

Still, Ms. Robinson expresses concern about the possibility that public-school programs might fall hostage to the private firms' pecuniary motives. "It's no way to run a railroad," she warns. "These vendors8will be gone when they no longer see a profit."

Into the Inner City

The course being taught at Lindblom Technical High is "a modification of the Evelyn Wood reading program with a greater emphasis on study skills," according to William A. LaPlante, vice president for product development and research at the American Learning Corporation. Alc is a subsidiary of Encyclopaedia Brittanica Inc. and one of the largest companies in the supplemental-education field.

Evelyn Wood, an educator from Utah, became nationally known during the 1960's when her "reading dynamics" course attracted the attention of Kennedy Administration officials.

Alc subsequently purchased the rights to the Evelyn Wood programs and offers them at its learning centers.

"The question was how might we get into the schools in the inner city," Mr. LaPlante says.

At Lindblom, school officials are using some $2,000 in federal Chapter 1 money to pay for the Evelyn Wood program.

The students are taught not only reading but also how to study, take notes, do research, and develop better recall for what they learned in class, explains Daniel Warner, national director of Evelyn Wood programs for alc

Early results are promising, school and company officials maintain.

The average reading speed for a group of freshmen in the class was 247 words per minute at the start of the program, they say, with 72 percent comprehension. At the end of the classroom training, the average was 770 words per minute with 92 percent comprehension, according to the company officials.

"The kids loved it," adds Linda Pierzchalski, the school's assistant principal. "They found they were using it in other classes."

The Evelyn Wood instructors are not a permanent fixture at the schools, however. Next year, several Lindblom teachers will teach the program and the school will pay the company only for student materials and consulting. But students and teachers at several other Chicago high schools will also receive the training.

"The approach is certainly something we need in the high schools," says Jack Mitchell, assistant superintendent for the district.

Chicago is alc's first trial site for marketing its in-school program, and officials of the firm are pondering ways to expand the effort.

"We are focusing on city school systems," says Mr. LaPlante. "If the program is as effective as we think, it really should be in all the high schools."

Taking a Look

Upper Saddle River's experiment with Berlitz began with a school-board member's experience with the adult program.

"One of our board members had gone through Berlitz for his job and he was told they have this 'junior' Berlitz program," recalls Superintendent Benson.

The district was seeking to begin foreign-language instruction for some of its elementary-school students last year, and district officials hired Berlitz to teach Spanish to 1st and 2nd graders at one school. This year, 2nd- and 3rd-grade students are continuing the program.

The Berlitz instructors from a local company facility are specially trained to teach children. They come to the school to offer each class two half-hour sessions per week.

Mr. Benson praises the flexibility the program gives the district in terms of staffing and financing.

"There may be a time down the line when it might be wise to hire our own staff," he says. "That point hasn't been reached yet."

Berlitz Junior has programs at 90 schools across the country, of which about 10 percent are public, says Patricia Fze, director of marketing for the company. Several schools in Dade County, Fla., are among those experimenting with the program, which was begun by the company four years ago.

"In most cases, we can save the schools quite a bit of money," Ms. Fze maintains. "They don't have to hire a full-time teacher."

Private-School Market

In Medford, Ore., the Sylvan Learning Corporation is exploring a different approach to the school market: contracting with private educators to provide federally funded remedial instruction to students who qualify for Chapter 1 assistance.

Several private schools in the area are sending disadvantaged students to the local Sylvan Learning Center for assistance.

"I give a greatly reduced price," says Martin Hogen, the Sylvan franchisee. "This is a program we are trying to do to meet the needs of individuals who normally would not be able to afford Sylvan."

While public schools in the area have their own Chapter 1 programs, many private-school administrators were unaware that their students might also be eligible for the federal program, Mr. Hogen claims.

"It is a long, drawn-out process," he says. "It took me two years before I got my first Chapter 1 student."

Today, though, some 20 percent of the students at Mr. Hogen's center come from Chapter 1 contracts with seven private schools.

Nationally, the industry leader plans to continue to explore expansion into such areas as Chapter 1, Job Training Partnership Act contracts, and on-site programs for companies, according to F. Eugene Montgomery, Sylvan's president and chief executive officer.

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