Sylvan Makes Quiet Inroads Into Public Schools

By Mark Walsh — November 29, 1995 6 min read


The Sylvan Learning Center stands out as the only classroom at Sojourner Truth Elementary School with four walls.

Truth School, in the shadows of the Cabrini-Green public-housing project here, was built in the early 1970s when open classrooms were the fashion. But those noisy, wide-open spaces can make concentration difficult, especially for children of drug-addicted parents and other disadvantaged students.

So when 7-year-old Dion Lockett files into the new Sylvan classroom, the shy 2nd grader finds a quiet place where he can focus on reading. A place where there are only three pupils for every teacher.

At Truth and 10 other Chicago public schools where Sylvan has set up remediation centers for disadvantaged students, education privatization is turning a new page.

Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. signed a $1.9 million-a-year contract last summer with the now-defunct Chicago school board, and this month reached a separate agreement with the district to train high school students as tutors.

Expansion Plans

The moves here are the latest in a two-year push by the Columbia, Md., company to expand into public schools. Sylvan has also made quiet inroads in Baltimore, Washington, and seven other districts around the country.

While other attempts by private companies to win a piece of the public education pie have stirred up swarms of angry teachers and suspicious residents, Sylvan’s low-key approach has attracted little notice.

“Sylvan seems to fly below the radar as far as critics of privatization are concerned,” said Walter G. Amprey, the superintendent of the Baltimore schools.

The company, best known for its private learning centers where parents pay hundreds of dollars to bring their children up to speed, signed its first contract with a public school district in Baltimore in 1993.

There, a separate privatization effort involving Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc. has resulted in a lengthy battle over the merits of private management that came to a head last week. (See story, page 1.) But, because Sylvan is not trying to take over public schools outright, teachers unions and other privatization critics have been more receptive to its role.

“Many of the concerns we have with EAI we just don’t have with Sylvan,” said Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union.

In its public school contracts, Sylvan has tapped federal Title I remedial-education money to serve children whose parents cannot afford $35 or more per hour for after-school assistance.

Growing Opportunities

The company now has 29 “centers” in 25 Baltimore public schools, and has expanded in the last two years to eight other districts: Baltimore, Dorchester, and Talbot counties in Maryland; Broward County, Fla.; Chicago; the District of Columbia; St. Paul, Minn.; and Pasadena, Texas.

Sylvan readily acknowledges that the public schools represent a potentially lucrative but barely tapped market. The company had revenues of $47 million in fiscal 1994, with about 14 percent coming from contract services in public education.

“Our capacity to grow and expand is unlimited,” said Felton M. Johnson, Sylvan’s vice president for public education services and a former superintendent of one of New York City’s 32 community school districts. “Sylvan is looking at becoming the largest supplier of services to the public schools.”

When companies such as EAI, the Edison Project, and Alternative Public Schools Inc. start talking to school districts about managing entire schools, critics sharpen their knives. But Sylvan’s form of service appears more benign to many educators.

“I think when people realize we’re not there to take over, they start to embrace us,” Mr. Johnson said.

Paul Vallas, the Chicago district’s chief executive officer, stressed that local schools make the decision to contract with Sylvan. “I’m pleased that principals are spending their Title I money that way,” he said. “I think the Sylvan program has proven to be successful.”

This month, the Chicago schools tapped Sylvan for a separate effort to train tutors for the district’s “10,000 Tutors” program. The company will open tutorial academies to train high school upperclassmen and college students to work with incoming high school freshmen. That contract, which is separate, is worth as much as $5 million over three years.

“This is a low-cost way to broaden the reach of the Sylvan system,” Mr. Vallas said.

Reading Gains

At Sojourner Truth Elementary School, the decision to apply for the Sylvan center was made by Principal Pernecie Pugh and her local school council. Such governing boards for each Chicago school, made up of parents, community members, and the principal, have flexibility on issues such as how to spend Title I money.

“In the past, I took state and federal [remediation] dollars and I bought extra teachers to reduce class sizes,” said Ms. Pugh. “For five years we did that, and it wasn’t working.”

Virtually all of Truth’s 484 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade come from Cabrini-Green, a massive public housing project notorious for its gang violence and squalid conditions.

Ms. Pugh points with pride to results of a recent state-mandated test showing a 21 percent gain in the number of Truth School 3rd graders who met state standards in reading.

Nonetheless, the school still ranks far behind most others in reading, and many of its students have already been targeted for remedial help.

In Robert Spicer’s 3rd-grade class, 17 out of 23 students attend hourlong Sylvan sessions twice a week. Mr. Spicer, a 22-year-old teaching rookie, has an all-boys class.

“The best thing for these young brothers is that they get a good foundation in reading,” he said.

Reward System

Inside the Sylvan center on the third floor, where Dion Lockett reads a book about colors, the center looks like other Sylvan locations, with its maroon carpeting, racks of books, and a row of personal computers. The quiet youngster said he enjoys coming to the center to work on his reading with a tutor.

Grimy, translucent windows let in some sunlight, but keep out distractions from the bleak neighborhood outside.

At one of Sylvan’s U-shaped teaching tables, where instructors can work closely with three students at once, Dorthea Edwards, Tatiann Farley, and Fashionette Finley are reading a short book with teacher Elke Bunner. Occasionally, Ms. Bunner dispenses blue poker chips to the students, which they save up to trade in for trinkets and toys at the “Sylvan store,” a bookcase found in each center.

The use of motivational tokens and rewards in education has long been controversial. Critics argue that such methods fail to instill in children an intrinsic desire for learning.

But the company sticks by its methods. “Rewards are a fact of life and part of our society,” said Sylvan’s Mr. Johnson.

A Strong Start

While Sylvan is new this year in Chicago, early results from centers at Baltimore schools look promising.

Last summer, the district released results of the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills showing that students in Sylvan programs gained 8.7 normal curve equivalents--roughly the equivalent of a percentile--in mathematics and 2.7 nces in reading.

Students who had spent 50 or more hours in the Sylvan programs throughout the 1994-95 school year showed even stronger gains.

“It’s a very good educational bargain,” said Mr. Amprey, the Baltimore superintendent. He added that he appreciates Sylvan’s guarantee of free extra remediation for any students who do not show a minimal increase in performance.

“There is so much available to middle-income families” at private centers, he added. “It’s nice we are able to offer this to our low-income youngsters.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1995 edition of Education Week as Sylvan Makes Quiet Inroads Into Public Schools