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Company Taps Teachers To Sell Educational Games

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A California-based company is recruiting teachers for a multimillion-dollar effort to sell kits of "individualized" educational games that parents can play with their young children.

The Intelligy Corporation, in what appears to be an unusual policy, will require salespeople for its new "Wings" product to have a teaching license or prior teaching experience. Teachers who are hired to sell the product will undergo a two-day training course for which they will receive continuing-education credits, according to company officials.

The company has already hired "several hundred" teachers for the part-time positions, said Donald D. Kingsborough, its chief executive officer.

Mr. Kingsborough, well-known in the toy industry as the entrepreneur behind the once-popular Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag toys, said market research with parents prompted him to decide to use teachers as the sales force for his new venture.

The parents, he said, expressed interest in having "grassroots support" from trained educators in using the Wings package, which will be marketed beginning this summer as a way to help stimulate children's interest in learning by using developmentally appropriate games and activities.

"Parents have tremendous faith in teachers," Mr. Kingsborough said. "They see them as very credible."

Mr. Kingsborough's former company, Worlds of Wonder Inc., was initially successful with its line of upscale toys. But, in what the Wall Street Journal has described as "one of the industry's most spectacular failures," the company filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code in 1987.

Mr. Kingsborough founded Intelligy, based in Pleasanton, Calif., two years ago, with the backing of U.S. and foreign investors.

Jewell Gould, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, said last week that the concept of using teachers to sell a particular product struck him as "kind of crude."

"I guess I would rather not see that happen," Mr. Gould said. "I don't want to tell someone that they can't be an entrepreneurial wizard, but I'd rather see them paid better" for teaching and not take a second job.

Many former teachers sell Discovery Toys, but the 12-year-old company that makes those products does not specifically target teachers as its sales force, a spokesman for Discovery Toys said.

Many teachers' introduction to the Intelligy Corporation's recruitment efforts will come at the National Education Association's annual meeting in Kansas City, Mo., in July. Intelligy is a registered exhibitor for the meeting of the union's Representative Assembly.

Howard Carroll, a spokesman for the NEA, said the union does not have a formal position on whether teachers should sell educational products.

"That's [Intelligy's] business if they want to ask teachers to sell it," Mr. Carroll said, adding that the union does not endorse products.

Intelligy also plans to recruit salespeople by advertising in newspaper classified sections, according to Mr. Kingsborough.

Current or former teachers hired by Intelligy would work part time. Practicing teachers would be prohibited from selling the kits to students in their own schools, Intelligy officials said.

Company officials estimate that teachers could make $10,000 a year in their first year selling the kits. That figure is based on the 40 percent commission they would be paid for selling three $89.95 starter kits per week, plus the 20 percent commission they would receive from customers' continuing purchases of supplemental materials, which will sell for $29.75 a month.

The Wings kits are expected to become available in August in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Forth Worth, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, and several California locations, including Fresno, Sacramento, and San Diego.

Initially, the product will be promoted for children ages 3 to 6 through a $10-million television advertising campaign. Mr. Kingsborough said the company has raised $40 million to $50 million.

Interested parents will be able to call a telephone number advertised on television and be referred to a salesperson in their area. Eventually, Mr. Kingsborough said, the company hopes Wings will be sold through word-of-mouth and presentations to parent organizations.

The program begins with an introductory kit that includes a series of questions and activities for parents to complete with their child in order to assess the child's abilities and developmental level. Parents will mail the answers to Intelligy to receive an initial computer-prepared analysis of the child that will be updated with further evaluations every six months, according to the company.

The questions will ask, for example, whether the child has siblings, speaks in complete sentences, and can hop on one foot, recognize shapes, and scribble with a pen on paper.

"This is just a descriptive profile," said Raun D. Melmed, a developmental pediatrician who is a member of Intelligy's eight-member advisory board. "A psychological test it's not."

Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, noted that it is difficult even for trained experts to assess children so young. And she cautioned that the assessment should not give parents the idea they must "work on" their child's development.

"The concept [of gearing toys toward a child's interests] makes sense," she said, "but I think some cautions have to be applied. It all depends on what this 'assessment' is, on how global it is."

According to Intelligy officials, the computer profile is meant to enable the company to "individualize" the materials sent to each family. Each month or two, depending on the child's age, the family will receive supplemental materials for a charge of $29.75.

In all, officials said, Wings will encompass more than 600 different4games and activities. The company expects parents and children to spend 20 to 30 minutes, three times a week, doing the prescribed activities.

The kits include, for example, game boards that can be used to play a variation on Bingo, and a "magic desk" with an erasable marker board on one side and compartments on the other to hold small cards used in some of the activities. A fold-out backdrop of a forest setting comes with a set of cardboard characters that children can use in playing roles and making up stories with their parents.

"Parents are sometimes so tired that they don't use their imagination" in interacting with their children, Mr. Kingsborough, the Intelligy ceo, said.

Members of the Wings advisory board have met with company officials to discuss the development of the program, but several of the board members cautioned that their involvement does not constitute an endorsement of the product.

Edward F. Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University and director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, said board members have been "a little bit touchy" about having their involvement construed that way.

"Our credibility is important to all of us," Mr. Zigler said. "If it looked like we were lending our names to an enterprise of this sort as a moneymaking venture, our credibility would be compromised."

"It's an interesting new effort," he added. "Why not help them do it well? They seem to be thoughtful about the way they're proceeding.''

Mr. Zigler said Intelligy officials also have been "receptive" to his suggestions for ways to get the Wings program into the hands of families that cannot afford to buy it.

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