Jackson — In January 1985, the supplemental learning business was new to the country. Sylvan Learning Centers had been founded six years earlier in Oregon when Macy Hart of Jackson read an article about the revolutionary new system in Newsweek magazine. His interest was piqued by the piece titled ‘Sylvan is the McDonald’s of Learning’ that assured the Sylvan Centers would offer the same learning experiences throughout the country.
“We both had such an interest in children and giving them positive experiences. My background is teaching and Macy was a camp director for 30 years,” Susan Hart says. “He read it and thought it sounded great and it’s grown from there.”
The Harts’ Jackson Sylvan Learning Center opened in November 1985 and was the first of its kind in Mississippi. “No one had ever heard of Sylvan, and we had to work to get our name out,” she said. “The centers are franchises, and each one is individually owned.”
From the beginning, the Jackson center has drawn students from a wide geographic range with some driving an hour and a half. Hart estimates the center has helped thousands of students and their families in the 20 years of operation.
“We’re now having children of children we tutored,” she says. “We build confidence and self esteem for the future and children are learning skills for life.”
Before tutoring can begin, the Sylvan Center hires certified teachers who go through specialized Sylvan training. They learn the Sylvan philosophy and methods and how to talk positive to children.
“Everything is coded and teachers learn how important positive feedback is. It’s very good training for new teachers,” Hart said. “The Sylvan experience of teaching prepares them that every word that comes out of their mouth has an impact on children. It’s difficult to always be positive.”
There are currently 22 teachers at the center. Most work there part time and teach elsewhere full time. Students from kindergarten through high school are served at the center.
It’s an ideal learning environment with a maximum of three students per teacher. Each student receives a customized program based on their needs. A student may have a learning disability or need eye glasses or help with a particular school subject. The teachers work with parents to determine those needs.
“We talk to parents if we suspect any learning disability,” she said. “We work with them to pinpoint anything that can be hurting learning.”
Student progress is monitored every day, and teachers meet with parents on a regular basis. Progress testing is done after every 36 hours of instruction.
The newest thing for Sylvan is online help for third through eighth grade students. With this method, students can receive help every day instead of coming to the center once a week.
“It’s not the same as face-to-face with teachers but it can help those who live far away and can’t drive in,” she said.
But Sylvan is not just for students with problems, Hart points out. “We also do enrichment for students who want to be ahead of the game,” she said. “We have a fabulous writing program that teaches the process because we believe children don’t get enough of that today.”
Hart believes the Sylvan Center has grown and continues to be busy because of a number of factors, including overcrowding in schools, both parents working outside the home, the breakdown of families, video games and television.
“There are so many things going on, if parents don’t have the skills to prepare or help children learn, it’s very difficult,” she said. “Video games reinforce a short attention span and with television children don’t even have to think. We must cultivate that brain. We want to raise adults who can think for themselves, make decisions and be productive.”
Although these may be days of economic hardships, Hart says they have seen no downturn in the use of Sylvan services.
“We serve every level and all economic levels. It’s not just public school students,” she said. “We have partnered with Sallie Mae so students can apply for loans for our services.”
She says she can’t equate what they do economically but measures the value by the way lives are impacted. “We look at it as an investment in children. It makes family dynamics better,” she said. “After 20 years, I still love it; working with families and helping children. It can make a difference.”
Looking toward the future, Hart says the Jackson Sylvan Center may expand online classes and will look at becoming accredited to offer high school courses for credit. “Some Sylvan Centers are doing that and we’re looking at it,” she said. “We must keep changing with the times.”
Barry Fowler, a frustrated junior high school teacher in Oregon, founded Sylvan in 1979. He opened a class for after-school tutoring in the Sylvan Office Building and that’s where the center got its name. It was an idea whose time had come. Today there are more than 1,000 centers in the U.S., Canada and Guam.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.