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New centers tutor kids for a price

Gloria Green says she is concerned enough about her granddaughter's education that she is willing to commit up to $8,000 for tutoring sessions at the new Sylvan Learning Center to help her get caught up in reading and math.

Never mind that the commitment requires her to take out a loan. And never mind that it means making a 60-mile round trip, four days a week, from her home near the Sumter County line.

"I feel like if they don't get their basics when they are young, how are they going to move on?" said Green, whose granddaughter, Steffany, is 10. "Your whole life is built on your early years."

Apparently, Green is not alone.

The new Sylvan Learning Center, in a small strip of retail shops just off Mariner Boulevard, already has 40 students. It opened at the end of May.

The Kumon Math and Reading Center on Spring Hill Drive also opened in May. It has about 20 students. And owners of both businesses feel they have only just begun.

Hernando County has grown large enough, they say, to support internationally franchised learning centers such as Sylvan and Kumon.

Both are careful not to disparage the local schools. But it is clear that their clientele includes some folks who are tired of the public schools' crowded classrooms and a pace geared to covering an ever-increasing number of state standards.

Both Sylvan and Kumon tout their prowess as a "mastery" based learning system. In other words, they will work with a student on a skill until he masters it.

Focusing almost exclusively on reading and math, the new centers are primarily in the business of helping people catch up, though each serves students who desire new challenges.

Previously, students and their parents sought help from private tutors wherever they could find them. But the learning centers have taken it a step further, said Elaine Wooten, the prekindergarten and elementary curriculum specialist for the Hernando County school district.

"This is somebody who has stepped out and organized a business in a formal way," Wooten said.

Despite a common purpose, Sylvan and Kumon have different approaches.

Sylvan Learning Center

Sylvan is the larger of the two operations.

Located at 11136 Libby Road, it occupies a crisp new office in the strip of new shops adjacent to the Famous Tate Appliance and Bedding Center on Mariner.

It has two full-time directors and eight part-time teachers, all with Florida teaching certificates. There's also an assistant and a testing specialist.

Students pay $150 for a series of diagnostic tests in one subject; an additional $75 fee is charged for testing in two areas. With the results, Sylvan maps out a strategy and estimates how long it might take to bring a student back up to grade level.

From there, personalized teaching begins at $35 to $40 an hour. Stays vary greatly in length, said Nicole Miller, Sylvan's owner and executive director.

For Green, her granddaughter is looking at 100 hours in reading and 100 hours in math. It could cost her a small fortune. But like some others who turn to learning centers, Green finds it hard to limit the price on Steffany's future.

"We feel like it's an investment for her future," Green said.

Sylvan teachers are trained in Sylvan methods and follow a Sylvan lesson plan. Each student's progress is monitored by a Sylvan director.

After every 12 hours of instruction, there's a progress report for students and their parents. After 36 hours, students are retested (at no extra charge) to gauge their growth.

Miller, who taught at J.D. Floyd Elementary School in Spring Hill and spent 10 years as a part-time Sylvan teacher, says the only magic is in personalized instruction, even though students may share a table and a teacher with up to two others.

Green says her granddaughter, who attends Bushnell Elementary in Sumter County, is making progress in her ability to do multiplication. She also seems more interested in her studies, Green said.

"When we were in school, the teacher said, if you don't get it, "Oh well,' " said Steffany, who just finished fourth grade. "At Sylvan, they don't say, "Oh well.' They help you."

Kumon Math and Reading

Kumon, at 16435 Spring Hill Drive, is a largely one-woman show.

Debra Stanley learned about Kumon, a method of learning developed in Japan by a high school math teacher, from a story in an entrepreneurial magazine. She decided to start her own Kumon franchise.

She has a teaching degree from Saint Leo University, but taught only briefly as an intern at Inverness Primary School. After four months of Kumon training, she opened for business.

Situated next to the Hernando County Jail, Kumon shares a new office building with Gene Hood Bail Bonds. The arrangement is no coincidence. Gene Hood was her father. And the bail bond business _ which she says requires the space only at night _ is now run by her husband, David.

Like Sylvan, students who come to Kumon take a diagnostic test. But at Kumon, the test is free and very short _ only about 20 minutes.

To continue, students pay $45 to enroll and a monthly fee of $105 for one subject; $200 for two subjects. Classes are twice a week for 30 minutes each session.

Built on repetition and practice, Kumon requires homework every day. It is always graded and given back to students so they can correct their mistakes. But it is supposed to take no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. The idea is to keep the material fresh in a student's mind.

In class, students punch a time clock when they start their new lessons and punch out when they finish. When a student requires more time than is specified for an assignment, it means they need more instruction, Stanley said.

As students progress and pass more tests, they get increasingly difficult class work. Typically, most Kumon students need 18 months to reach their goal of getting to grade level.

Jodie Jones of Spring Hill began looking for tutors shortly after seeing the scores her three kids posted on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. All of them attend Powell Middle School.

Private tutors she met just wanted to focus on helping with homework. So she looked at the learning centers.

"I checked into Sylvan, and you have to be Rockefeller to attend that," she said.

Jones found Kumon more in line with her budget. She also likes its attention to repetition and daily practice. But only time, and the new school year, will show whether her children have made improvement, she said.

Audrey Williams of Brooksville took her daughter, Sabrina, to Kumon shortly after it opened in May. She says she is seeing improvement. Sabrina, now a seventh-grader, fell behind at the private Hernando Christian Academy and struggled at Powell. Teachers seemed to lack time to help.

Wooten, the school district's elementary curriculum specialist, said it is true that the voluminous set of standards teachers must cover each year forces them to work at a pace too fast for some students.

Teachers in nearly every elementary school classroom use small groups to help address individual needs. And, for the past two years, elementary schools have been pulling out struggling readers for help in a setting of one teacher for three students. But it is so costly that it can only be done for second-graders.

"There is a need for that," Wooten said of the private learning centers. "I think it is a statement that says we have not been able to totally meet that need. And we admit that."

To that end, Wooten said elementary school principals gave Miller a warm welcome when she came to tell them about Sylvan's arrival.

Miller, who taught for 13 years in public schools, knows the demands on teachers. She says learning centers are not competition for schools, but a resource.

"Sylvan is just supplemental education. I can't replace a school," Miller said. "We're a complement. We cannot be a school."

_ Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.

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