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Summer School Is No Longer Just for Kids Who Fell Behind

August 8, 1995

Lizzie Barkay, six years old, is going to summer school. The daughter of two Los Angeles physicians chews gum and swings her legs as she pores over an abridged translation of ``Les Miserables.″

``She needed additional stimulation,″ says her father, David Barkay.

Summer school used to mean remedial purgatory for children who needed to make up poor grades or struggled with basic reading or math. These days, however, summer school is increasingly a solution for busy parents who want more education for their academically successful kids. And a burgeoning for-profit education industry, ranging from single-storefront schools like the one Lizzie attends to international chains like Japan-based Kumon Institute of Education, is satisfying parents’ demands.

``You want your kids to make sure they have a leg up,″ says Julie Steinberg, whose son Andrew, five, is taking reading lessons twice a week this summer at the Knowledge Factory, the school in a west Los Angeles strip mall where Lizzie is a student.

``We’ve seen a real shift from remediation to kids looking to move ahead,″ says Flo Schell, director of franchise development for Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. of Columbia, Md., which went public last year and plans to open 200 new centers by 1997.

Summer ``enrichment″ isn’t cheap. Costs range from $65 a month per course at Kumon centers to $35 an hour plus $100 for diagnostic tests at Huntington Learning Centers Inc., an Oradell, N.J., chain. So it’s not surprising that the students tend to be affluent. Of the more than 200 students ages four to 11 taking math, computer skills and grammar for up to $255 a month at the Knowledge Factory this summer, about one-third come from ``very exclusive private schools,″ says Paula McHale, the firm’s founder.

Yet there are plenty of parents willing to pay, and the companies are growing. Futurekids Inc., a Los Angeles-based chain of computer-education franchises, has been adding about one new location a week for the past three years. The company aims for 1,000 locations world-wide by the year 2000, up from around 400 currently. Kumon, with estimated global revenue of $850 million for the year ended March 31, is seeing double-digit enrollment growth annually in its basic math and reading courses in the U.S., says Bruce Doneff, the marketing manager of Kumon USA Inc., Kumon’s North American unit. Even the modest Knowledge Factory has a waiting list of over 100 children and will expand to a second location soon. All of the companies offer year-round instruction after school, but say they get many new clients during the summer.

Why not just let kids have the summer off? Aside from general anxiety over raising children in an increasingly competitive economy, some parents say they want their kids to gain skills that even the best private schools can’t emphasize. Elisa Kapell has enrolled her three children in biweekly, three-hour summer ``computer camps″ at a Futurekids franchise in Pacific Palisades, an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood. ``Even in schools with good computer facilities, students don’t get much one-on-one time,″ says Mrs. Kapell, who has two children in private school.

Fear of crime is another factor in the trend toward summer education, even in tony enclaves like Pacific Palisades. ``You can’t let your kids hang out on the street in Los Angeles, no matter where you live,″ Mrs. Kapell says.

The growth of the supplemental-education industry also reflects the increase in the number of dual-income families. ``It’s another way of getting child care for the summer,″ says Carollee Howes, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

That was the case for Margy Malloy, mother of a nine-year-old girl. Ms. Malloy spent more than $1,300 last summer on Sylvan reading instruction and testing for her daughter, Colleen. While the motivation was partly remedial _ Colleen was reading below her grade level _ summer school also solved a problem for Colleen’s two working parents. ``I’m going to pay for my kids to be cared for over the summer, and I’d like to get more for it than watching sitcoms,″ Ms. Malloy says.

Some experts worry that the growth of for-profit education firms will leave poorer children even further behind their wealthier, computer-literate peers. The growth of education as a commodity may ``broaden the gap between the haves and the have-nots,″ says John McLaughlin, who writes a newsletter on the for-profit education market from Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University.

A few firms are trying to address questions of inequity. Futurekids offered 10 scholarships of $1,000 to underprivileged children this year, and plans to offer more. ``It matters to us internally that we’re teaching children who can afford it and not the great numbers who can’t, but a business has to make money,″ says Peter Markovitz, Futurekids’ president.

Other educators suggest there may be a downside to pushing children into overly structured schedules that demand performance all year round. ``When do you just have time to lay back and look out the window?″ wonders David Tyack, a professor of education at Stanford University.

Parents wonder, too. Mrs. Steinberg, who jokes that she’s a ``compulsive babyboomer parent,″ didn’t send her older son, Sam, back to the Knowledge Factory for a second round of reading lessons this summer. She was afraid of pushing him too hard. ``I thought it might be fun for him to veg out,″ she says.

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