Sylvan Goes Public

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The Sylvan Learning Center stands out as the only classroom at Sojourner Truth Elementary School with four walls. Truth Elementary, in the shadows of Chicago's Cabrini-Green public-housing project, 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 from disadvantaged homes.

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

Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. signed a $1.9 million-a-year contract last summer with the Chicago school system, and this month it reached a separate agreement with the district to train high school students as tutors. The moves are the latest in a two-year push by the Columbia, Md., company to expand into public schools. Sylvan has also made quiet inroads into several other districts around the country.

While attempts by other private companies to win a piece of the public education pie have been denounced by 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,'' says Walter Amprey, 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 public school contract in Baltimore in 1993. A separate privatization effort in that city, involving Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc., resulted in a lengthy battle over the merits of private management, which ended late last year with the termination of EAI's contract.

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,'' says Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Sylvan now has 29 "centers'' in 25 Baltimore public schools and has expanded in the last two years to eight other districts: three other systems in Maryland; Broward County, Fla.; Chicago; the District of Columbia; St. Paul, Minn.; and Pasadena, Texas. In its public school contracts, Sylvan has tapped federal Title I remedial education money to serve children whose parents cannot afford the $35 per hour the company generally charges for after-school assistance.

Company officials readily acknowledge that 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,'' says Felton 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 like EAI 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,'' Johnson says.

Paul Vallas, the Chicago district's chief executive officer, stresses that local schools in that city make the decision to contract with Sylvan. "I'm pleased that principals are spending their Title I money that way,'' he says. "I think the Sylvan program has proven to be successful.''

At Truth Elementary, the decision to apply for the Sylvan center was made by principal Pernecie Pugh and her local school council. In Chicago, such councils--made up of parents, community members, and the school principal--are free to spend Title I money as they see fit. "In the past, I took state and federal [remediation] dollars, and I bought extra teachers to reduce class sizes,'' Pugh says. "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. Pugh points with pride to the results of a recent state-mandated test showing a 21 percent gain in the number of Truth 3rd graders who met state standards in reading. Nonetheless, the school ranks far behind most others, and many of its students have been targeted for Title I remedial help.

In 3rd grade teacher Robert Spicer's all-boys class, for example, 17 of 23 students attend hour-long Sylvan sessions twice a week. "The best thing for these young brothers is that they get a good foundation in reading,'' the 22-year-old rookie teacher says.

From the inside, Truth's Sylvan center looks--with its maroon carpeting, racks of books, and a row of personal computers--like other learning facilities the company operates. Translucent windows let in some sunlight but keep out distractions from the bleak neighborhood outside.

At one U-shaped teaching table, students Dorthea Edwards, Tatiann Farley, and Fashionette Finley are reading a short book with Sylvan teacher Elke Bunner. Periodically, Bunner dispenses blue poker chips to the girls. Students save the chips and then later trade them in for trinkets and toys from the "Sylvan store.''

The use of such motivational tokens and rewards has long been a source of controversy among educators. Critics argue that these methods fail to instill in children an intrinsic desire for learning. But the company stands behind the approach.

"Rewards are a fact of life and part of our society,'' Johnson says.

While this is Sylvan's first year in the Chicago school system, early results from centers in Baltimore's public 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 equal to a percentile--in mathematics and 2.7 in reading. Students who spent 50 or more hours in the Sylvan programs during the 1994-95 school year showed even stronger gains.

"It's a very good educational bargain,'' says Baltimore superintendent Amprey. "There is so much available to middle-income families. It's nice we are able to offer this to our low-income youngsters.''

--Mark Walsh

Vol. 07, Issue 05, Page 1-24

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