Apparently, Sesame Street just doesn’t cut it anymore. The latest trend in early childhood learning is private academic tutoring, with firms like Kumon, Sylvan Learning Centers, and Kaplan expanding their franchises to include programs for 4-year-olds. Observers say that the emphasis on testing in public schools has made parents anxious to get their tots hitting the books (or at least the flashcards) as soon as possible. Whether such programs are effective is another question. While supporters say academic-skills training for prekindergartners can give them fundamentals they need for school, others point out that there’s no evidence of long-term benefits except in the case of children with learning disabilities. “Children learn in a very hands-on, very active way,” said Sara Wilford, director of a graduate education program at Sarah Lawrence College. “I do think ‘sooner means better’ completely loses everything we know about how children learn.”
Parents in Kalamazoo, Michigan, have a little less to be anxious about after the announcement that an anonymous group of benefactors plans to give college scholarships to nearly every graduate of the city’s high schools for the next 13 years. Talk about being in the right place at the right time: The scholarships will be good at any of Michigan’s public universities or community colleges and cover between 65 percent and 100 percent of tuition and fees, depending on how long the student has been enrolled in Kalamazoo schools. Officials expect the free-college perk to attract new businesses and increase property values in the largely middle-class city of 77,000, transforming its schools in the process. “I’ll bet the Kalamazoo system will experience unprecedented growth after this announcement,” said Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.
A nonprofit group in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area also aims to give kids a better shot at college by offering inner city students the kind of test-prep assistance typically available only to the upper crust. “My starting idea was what if we replicated Kaplan for poor kids,” said Jim McCorkell, who started Admission Possible in 2000 out of his own apartment. The program, which uses AmeriCorps members as instructors, has now set up shop in nine urban high schools, aggressively recruiting qualifying students for free ACT prep courses, private tutoring, and essay coaching. Instructors, who also seem to take on the role of proxy guidance counselors, even provide wake-up calls on test day. “They’re the glue keeping kids on track for college,” noted Mike Favor, principal of Minneapolis’ North High School.
On the subject of benevolent gestures in education, a Web site that allows individuals to fund teachers’ requests for classroom supplies continues to grow. DonorsChoose, which we recently highlighted for raising more than $1.5 million for schools in the storm-battered Gulf region, has now expanded from New York to cities nationwide and is attracting the interests of big businesses and celebrities, including Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, Bette Midler, and Claire Danes. While donors credit the site for giving them a direct way to help teachers and kids, some experts warn that it may weaken the notion that adequate public school financing is a government responsibility. Still, teachers who’ve benefited from the service don’t seem to be complaining. Said Cynthia Rosado, a 1st grade teacher in Brooklyn who’s had more than 60 proposals financed through the site, “It’s changed the quality of life in my classroom, and in 20 years of teaching, there’s not too many things that have done that.”
According to new research, the quality of life in classrooms could also be improved if kids just got a little more sleep. In a study that seems equal parts cruel and instructive, scientists at Brown Medical School systematically deprived children of a couple hours of sleep a night for a week and then—here’s the interesting part—tested to see whether their teachers could tell. Guess what? They could. The teachers reported a significantly greater number of problems among sleep-deprived students, including difficulty learning new lessons and paying attention in class. Given the findings, the researchers speculated that not getting enough sleep could be a “double whammy” for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
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Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, Web Watch will not be published on Thursday, Nov. 29. The next column will be posted on Dec. 1.