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VOL. 128 | NO. 9 | Monday, January 14, 2013

 

Sharpening Students’ Academic Abilities Crux of Sylvan Model

By JONATHAN DEVIN

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For some kids, school is never truly out for the holidays.

Trends in education standards provide the currents that keep tutoring businesses sailing.

“There have been many (educational) trends in the tenure that I’ve been with this company,” said Andrea Goughnour, director of the Sylvan Learning Center, 1605 N. Germantown Parkway in Cordova.

“There was a time before the economy bottomed out where we could throw a commercial on television and people would line up at the door to enroll. We don’t have that anymore,” Goughnour said. “We’re relying on more grassroots marketing and word of mouth. That’s the biggest trend we’ve seen.”

But that doesn’t mean business is bad for the Memphis Sylvan franchise, which is one of the oldest in the country. As federal laws and standardized testing morphs through the years, Goughnour has gotten good at reading the cards and preparing ahead of time.

Sylvan Learning Center is a national franchise of some 1,200 centers throughout North America. There are only two centers in the Memphis area – Goughnour’s center and another belonging to a separate franchisee in Southaven.

Andrea Goughnour is director of Sylvan Learning Center at 1605 Germantown Parkway. The business offers supplemental education with personalized programs for children from 4 1/2 years old to 12th grade.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

A third used to exist in Millington but closed due to health problems of the proprietor.

The Memphis franchise is owned by Ashley Hill, who owns centers in Arkansas – Little Rock, Jonesboro and a recent addition in Conway.

Sylvan Learning Centers, established in 1979, use individualized study programming to teach children from 4 1/2 years old to 12th grade. Usually one teacher meets with three students at the same time, though Goughnour said that model is not considered “group study,” per se.

“That allows the teacher to work one on one when the student is learning something new, but then the independence level is achieved,” she said. “I equate it to mom at the kitchen table helping her three kids. They may be at three different grade levels, but she’s giving them equal time. There are times when she needs to work one on one while the other two are busy on their own.”

Core programs at Sylvan includes reading; math, algebra and geometry; writing and handwriting; study skills, ACT prep and advanced reading; and homework help.

Occasionally the center works with adults on a one-on-one basis.

Fees include a $95 lifetime assessment fee, a one-time registration fee, materials and hourly tuition of $49 to $55.

The needs of students change with the times, Goughnour said.

“Everything has shifted since I was in grade school,” she said. “I went to kindergarten to learn how to read, but more schools are expecting kids to come in with their letters and sounds. It’s shifted everything down a grade level.”

Also a string of new and arguably rigid standards set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act meant that schoolteachers were forced to move students through their curricula, ready or not, to prepare for standardized testing.

For Sylvan, that meant that most kids were coming in for remediation – playing catch-up – rather than enrichment, or getting ahead.

Now that federal standards have been eased somewhat, school tutoring programs have also lost funding and many schools depend on volunteers to staff their own programs.

Sylvan meets with students for a minimum of two hours per week but as many as six to eight hours. The 15 teachers on staff are mostly schoolteachers, substitute teachers or retired teachers working part-time to supplement their income.

While business is tied to the school calendar, now in midwinter, they get a reprieve.

“We ebb and flow in our seasons, we’re at a lower point in the year just because we’re coming off the holidays and funds get directed toward Christmas,” Goughnour said. “But another report card’s going to be coming out and we’ll start getting that feverish panic before the end of the school year.”

Summer, she said, is the busiest period because students can catch up on what they missed at a more relaxed pace, and because some parents use the center to keep kids from forgetting what they learned in the previous year.

Goughnour expects her enrollment to double or triple in the vacation months and she will likely hire more staff.

The center recently added open hours on Friday and Sunday, making it a seven-day per week business. The center has learning available online and has also opened up a digital platform used by iPad, which appeals to kids who associated it with playing video games.

In time Goughnour expects to offer mobile servers so that learning can take place from any location.

As with the needs of the students, each Sylvan franchise’s business model is extremely individualized, and therefore depends on volume to perform well. But Goughnour doesn’t see the need for tutoring going away anytime soon.

“There’s no cookie-cutter approach,” she said.

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