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Fast-Growing Training Firm Turns Computer Attention to Teachers

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Annapolis, Md.

A handful of 5-year-olds straggles through the glass doors of Futurekids shortly after noon, most of them fresh from their morning kindergarten class.

As their parents settle into chairs on one side of a partition, the children shed their coats and squat cross-legged in a circle on the floor to prepare for today's lesson in computer literacy.

To demonstrate some basic technology skills, teacher Kathie Stender picks up a CD-ROM, deliberately touching its reflective surface and leaving fingerprints.

"What's wrong?" she asks as the children yell to warn her that she is handling the disk improperly.

In 1,500 centers like this in 45 countries, Futurekids has found success helping children learn computer skills that public and private schools often overlook. Now, the company wants to teach those same skills to teachers.

Peter Markovitz, the South African-born president and chief executive officer of Futurekids, which is based in Los Angeles, has begun encouraging his franchise owners to seek contracts with public schools to train teachers in the use of computers.

"This is a big shift for us," Mr. Markovitz said in an interview this month. The Annapolis Futurekids is a local affiliate of one of the fastest-growing companies specializing in education in the world.

Rapid Growth

Futurekids was founded 13 years ago, and began in 1989 to sell franchises for its method of teaching children how to use computers to enhance their academic skills. Futurekids teachers, many of them graduates of education schools who teach part time, use a curriculum that fosters such "computer literacy" skills as navigating the Internet and using word-processing, graphics, and spreadsheet programs.

Many of the centers offer after-school enrichment courses for students that are often paid for by parents' groups. Increasingly, adults are also enrolling in Futurekids courses to hone their computer skills.

But Mr. Markovitz said that until recently, the company's focus has been on providing computer literacy for students outside the regular school day, rather than working directly with educators in the schools.

A Tough Mission

Mr. Markovitz hopes the company's new emphasis will help fill what many experts believe are serious gaps in the professional development of teachers. But he acknowledges that the task is a difficult one.

Though school districts around the country are spending millions on computers, less than 15 percent of their technology budgets goes toward making sure teachers know how to use them, according to a recent federal study.

Mr. Markovitz said his company has seen firsthand how little most schools know about integrating technology into instruction. Over the past year, the company has modified its curriculum to align its objectives with the skills that many districts have set as instructional goals.

Futurekids franchises in Dade County, Fla., were among the first to sign contracts with public schools to train teachers. So far, the company has reached agreements with about 20 public and private schools around the country to help train teachers.

Mr. Markovitz is also well aware of the tensions that can arise when private enterprise and public schools try to work together.

For example, Chris Master, a spokeswoman with the technology office of the Dade County schools, noted that Futurekids was one of several local vendors eligible to receive state grants for technology training.

But, she added, when the district sought bids two years ago for the first round of grant money, the application from the local Futurekids franchises emphasized technology literacy, rather than the school board's desire to teach teachers how to incorporate technology into the curriculum.

That difference earned Futurekids a less favorable rating from local officials than its competitors received.

Though his is one of a growing number of companies eager to carve a slice of the public education pie, Mr. Markovitz is quick to distance his approach to that of companies seeking to run whole schools or districts.

"I don't believe in the effort to have private enterprise operate schools," he said. "I think, as a business, you should help schools to achieve their mission."

He likens Futurekids' approach to that of a publishing company offering textbooks. But he admits that convincing educators that Futurekids can provide a valuable service will be a tough sell.

Anne Arundel County, Md., which includes Annapolis, is one of the many places where the Futurekids franchises are making their pitch. Joanne Masone, a former classroom teacher, owns two Futurekids centers here.

The center where Kathie Stender teaches uses space exploration as its curricular theme. Shortly after the lesson about CD-ROMs, the children used fast new computers and a sophisticated graphics program to design "official astronaut badges."

Ms. Masone, meanwhile, hopes that the parents whose children learn about computers at her centers, and others like them, will help the district find the money to offer its teachers an opportunity to keep pace as well.

'Complementary Vehicle'

Anne Arundel County--one of the nation's 50 largest school districts--does not require prospective employees, nor any of its 4,000 teachers, to have any experience with computers.

To develop computer skills among teachers, the district has adopted a "trainer of trainers" model, part of a $30 million effort to upgrade technology in the district. The program provides intensive staff development to 10 teachers at each of its 12 high schools.

"We see Futurekids as a complementary vehicle to train teachers," said Kim Bobola, a principal assigned to the district's central administrative offices to oversee the computer project.

Ms. Masone says she hopes local PTAs and other community organizations will pay for Futurekids to offer professional development, as some schools have done.

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