At 14, Nyjla Littlejohn seems about as destined for success in life as any teen can get. She is bright, articulate and motivated. Her grades at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia: A's and B's.
But her parents, Renee and Michael, aren't taking any chances.
They've signed Nyjla up with a private tutoring service to sharpen her math and study skills and learn time management. Three times a week, her school day is followed by an hour's worth of enrichment work at the Sylvan Learning Center in Columbia.
"We want to give her as much of an edge as possible for getting into one of the premium colleges and for the job market," explains Mr. Littlejohn, who works in the Army's human resources department at the Pentagon. "We have high expectations and goals for her."
That kind of thinking is helping to fuel a boom in the tutoring industry, which has also benefited from the increased willingness of middle-class parents to get private help when their kids falter in school.
Though one-person, home-based tutors still dominate the industry, tutoring has become big business.
Sylvan, which has 503 tutoring centers across the country, went public last year, selling $25 million of stock to fund a nationwide expansion. Huntington Learning Centers, another national tutoring company, reports revenues up 37 percent between 1991 and 1993.
Bright, high-achievers such as Nyjla now account for 30 percent to 40 percent of many tutors' clientele and could grow even larger, tutors say.
Some predict it will become common for students in affluent suburbs to trot off for private cramming sessions after they finish school. That spectacle is so common in Japan, they have a term for it: Juku.
"When I first started into this business it was primarily for the student needing remedial help," says Susan Rapp, who has tripled her client load at the Kumon Math and Village Reading Center in Columbia over the last three years. "Today I have many students who are either gifted and need some extra support, or who are achieving at an expected grade level, but lack strong study skills to advance."
For Nyjla Littlejohn, the tutoring sessions might mean missing some soccer practices. So she wasn't wild about the idea of spending so many afternoons at Sylvan.
"Actually, it's not as bad as I first thought it might be," Nyjla says. "I kind of like it. I want to have straight A's. That's a must for getting into a good college."
Parents like the Littlejohns are sinking hundreds or thousands of dollars into tutoring for their children. The phenonmenon amounts to a vote of no-confidence in the public schools, says Dr. Robert E. Slavin, one of the country's leading advocates of education reform and director of the elementary program of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.
"The public is fast losing faith in the public school system," Dr. Slavin says. "More people are thinking that instead of trying to improve the system for everybody, they'll concentrate on improving what they can for their families. The growth in private tutoring has a lot to do with that thinking."
Public school systems don't seem to mind the trend. In fact some, like Howard County's, have helped private tutoring gain credibility by providing interested parents with lists of area tutors.
And large tutoring companies are using magazine and television advertising to attract clients. Sylvan launched a polished national TV ad campaign earlier this year to build name recognition and tout its services.
'This is fun'
It's mid-morning on a Saturday at the Sylvan Learning Center in Towson, and Theresa Hammond, a sprite 7-year-old from Baltimore, sports a perky grin as she hones her math skills by playing a computer game called Dinosoft.
"Everytime I go to school I want to cry. It's kind of boring. But this is fun," says Theresa beaming. "You get to play with games and take breaks."
The center is abuzz with about 20 other students, from Theresa's age to young teens. They work in groups of three and four with tutors for a time, then bounce to computer and board learning games or move off to tables alone to work on reading, writing or math assignments.
Theresa watches a cartoon-like dinosaur on the screen. The figure poses addition questions and Theresa selects what she believes is the correct answer from a group of flash cards that pop up on the screen.
For the next 15 minutes this game will be her "tutor."
As she works on the Dinosoft game, Theresa glances periodically to a corner of the room where shelves are stocked with colorful toys, games and trinkets.
Students who work hard during the tutoring sessions are rewarded with tokens, which they can either save or redeem for items on the shelves when their session is completed.
Theresa's tutor stops by and quietly watches over her shoulder as she works her way through the addition questions. When she's done, Theresa heads back to her tutor's table where the two take up working on more math problems, this time using brightly colored blocks decorated with animals.
While Theresa works one-on-one with her tutor, most of the other students work in "pods" made up of a tutor and three to four students matched generally by age. Tutors act as a coach or guide, jumping in to assist individual students as they run aground on assignments.
Tutoring isn't cheap -- as Trudy Hammond, Theresa's mother, found out.
She shells out $68 a week for Theresa to attend the hour-long tutoring sessions on Saturdays. The expense is tough on Mrs. Hammond, a teacher for the state penal system, but she thinks the investment is worth it.
Theresa was failing in math and reading and just wasn't getting much individual attention at her Cecil Elementary School in Baltimore.
"I didn't want to find myself supporting her when she is 18," Ms. Hammond says. "I figured it was sacrifice for this now or face the consequences later."
Tutoring comes first
Even for middle-class families, enrolling children in a private tutoring service often requires shaving family expenses.
"We've put off getting new carpeting for the house and things like movies and new clothes," says Robin Whitaker, who is paying $160 a month to have her 11-year-old son, Casey, tutored in reading and writing at the Village Reading Center. The 10-year-old has a minor learning disability, and he needed more help than he was getting at Dasher Green Elementary School in Columbia, his mother says.
"Financially it makes things a stretch, but it's a much smaller sacrifice than my son would have to pay in the future if we didn't address this need now," Mrs. Whitaker says.
Harriett Offitt, director of The Tutoring Network, a Baltimore-based private tutor association, says tutoring services in the Baltimore-Washington area cost generally between $15 to $40 an hour per child.
The average customer at Sylvan will spend $1,200 for tutoring sessions twice a week for four months, according to a report on the company's growth prospects prepared by Alex. Brown & Sons.
Parents often are encouraged to get their child tutored for a year or more by Sylvan -- sending the cost up significantly.
Children can benefit
Though tutors are costly, they can be worth it, education experts say.
"There are few things in all of education that will make as big a difference on a student's performance as one-on-one instruction," says Dr. Slavin, the Hopkins researcher.
Little independent research has been done on the effectiveness of tutoring. But Dr. Slavin and Hopkins education researcher Barbara Wasik reviewed research on the performance of first-graders who had been tutored in reading. Their study, published in Reading Research Quarterly, found tutoring made a "substantial" difference in a child's performance, especially if the child was tutored by a certified teacher.
Mrs. Whitaker says Casey's close relationship and interaction with his tutors has helped him make strides.
"His improvement is recognized by his tutor and that really motivates him," she says. "At school, they said, 'Well, he's just an average learner.' But I thought that was a weak response to a definite need."
CHOOSING AND USING A TUTOR
* Choose only a service that requires its tutors to be certified teachers.
This is one of the key elements parents should look for before enrolling children. Maryland doesn't require tutors to have a teaching certificate -- but there are tutoring companies that won't hire a tutor without that credential. Ask to see the credentials of the tutors that would work with your child.
* Price-shop. Rates can vary widely.
* Get in writing a tutoring service's guarantees, if any.
Study the guarantee closely. Some services offer guarantees but require parents or the student to fulfill certain requirements.
* Parents should look to their child's school report card as the best measure of whether tutoring is actually helping.
Parents can be led to believe their child is making progress when in fact they are not gaining ground. Some tutoring services gauge student progress through their own testing rather than the child's report card.
* Parents should keep tabs on how much one-on-one instruction time a child gets from the tutor.
Working alone or on a computer is no substitute for individual time with a tutor. One-on-one instruction has been shown to offer the most promise for student learning.