PARENTS PAYING TUTORS BIG BUCKS TO GIVE KIDS AN EDGE.
Even though her 8-year-old son gets good grades in school, Sivan Kobi wanted him to practice his reading over the summer, so she signed him up for twice-a-week lessons at a commercial tutoring center.
A third-grader, Yehuda Kobi is already experienced at summer tutoring: Last year he attended Kumon, a nationally franchised center that teaches math and reading skills.
``I think all the parents want to put their kids in tutoring. It's the new after-school thing,'' said Kobi, 29, of Calabasas, who registered her son at Score Educational Center this summer on the recommendation of another parent.
``Rather than putting kids in karate, dance or sports, parents are looking more to putting kids in tutoring.''
Parents, particularly in more affluent communities, are paying thousands of dollars and increasingly turning to after-school educational programs for their kids - at younger and younger ages - to give them a leg up in an increasingly competitive society.
What was once a cottage industry - with college students, the smart kid in class and retired teachers earning spending money by helping out after school - has become big business.
``I think that what we really have come to see is education is being viewed as a commodity that has exchange value in the marketplace and that an investment in education really at a mass-market level is going to reap benefits in the form of better higher education and ultimately a greater income,'' said J. Mark Jackson, research director for Eduventures Inc., a Boston-based education market, research and advisory firm.
``The traditional role of schools as the sole source of education is now being supplemented in this commercial marketplace.''
Parents pay $3.5 billion annually for tutoring services that range from $15 to hundreds of dollars an hour - the median cost is $30 to $50. For the past three to five years the market has been growing 12 to 15 percent annually.
In areas of high demand, like Woodland Hills, the centers are popping up as quickly and as close to each other as Starbucks coffeehouses.
The shopping center at Topanga Canyon and Ventura boulevards, for instance, has Score, a Kumon Learning Center and The End Result. Less than one mile away on Topanga is a Huntington Learning Center.
On a recent afternoon, Neha Vyas tried hard to contain her excitement as she marched into the Kumon classroom, so anxious was she to show the teacher the completed math assignments in her folder.
Neha, a pigtailed 5-year-old, is already enrolled in tutoring even though she hasn't yet begun kindergarten.
``It's for her concentration, improving her calculations and her mental abilities and to do it independently. I'd like her to be ahead in her class and to take up more challenging tasks,'' said Neha's mother, Minal Vyas, 32, of Woodland Hills.
``Right now I think their minds are like sponges. If it helps her in achieving, since it's become so competitive, I'd like to go for it.''
The growing demand for tutoring coincides with federal academic standards established in 2001 as well as the increasing difficulty of getting into more prestigious universities, Jackson said. And, parents are figuring that the better their kids' educations, the greater earning capacity they'll have in the future.
``The concept is that schools have not done everything they needed to prepare kids for college and parents need to do something extra to increase their full potential,'' Jackson said. ``Whether or not that is correct is up for debate, but that's the message ... and it seems to be resonating with parents to spend personal funds when they can to do more.''
At the Score Center in Woodland Hills, which charges $189 to $450 a month to improve basic skills, director Larry Walker said parents are increasingly wanting their kids to learn more advanced material.
``We're seeing an increase in students who are at grade level but who want to compete,'' Walker said. ``We have second-graders doing fifth-grade work and parents who want their children to get ahead so they're eligible to skip a grade.''
Barbara Lee, who has owned the Woodland Hills Kumon franchise for 13 years, said she's seeing more 4- and 5-year-old kids enrolling in her classes.
``The reality in society is competition. Competition is a fact of life,'' Lee said.
Her first student was her 5-year-old son, and now she has about 120 students who come to work on math and reading problems for 20 minutes, two days a week, for an average of $85 per month.
``Any habit is much easier and less expensive to form when they're young. If you want to instill good study habits, concentration and self- confidence, you do it now, not when they're a teenager and wonder why they're falling behind,'' Lee said.
While educators believe that tutoring can help some kids who are underperforming in math or reading, some child development professionals feel parents should be careful about going overboard, because the extra help at a young age does not guarantee success.
``The whole idea of taking a child who's doing fine and tutoring them to make them even better is a little disconcerting to me, because what you're saying to the child is it's not OK to be just the way you are and I think it will have a long-term effect on self-esteem,'' said Alyce Akers, department chairwoman of family and consumer sciences at California State University, Northridge.
``I don't know if tutoring or overscheduling your child is going to be an insurance policy against ending up on the wrong side of the curve.''
Akers said children need to have time to seek out those things that interest them and to develop the ability to think creatively.
``Relax and let the children be themselves. What we have is the overprogrammed, overscheduled child and they never have the time to think,'' she said. ``Most of us in the older generation had time to sit in a tree and think. The only time that a kid has to think is in the back of the SUV going to soccer.''
A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said the problem with the increase in reliance on tutoring is it puts students from lower-income families at a disadvantage.
He is pushing to work with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified School officials on finding funds to provide after-school and weekend tutorial services in low-income neighborhoods.
``It's shameless. Parents in less affluent areas can't help their kids and that's critical. What tutoring does is it steps in and brings that help to the kids,'' he said. ``I believe that's the job of public education and that's why we need to put money in tutoring programs and make sure we have the best teachers to participate in them.''
But Akers is sure this trend will wane once again.
``These things sort of go in and out of fashion. I can remember from the `70s we had a similar kind of sense in our society that if we didn't teach our kids really early to be competitive, they would lose out,'' Akers said.
``Then we went through the `80s and `90s and we sort of moved away from that. I've been in this field long enough to see the cycles ... but this, too, will pass.''
Naush Boghossian, (818) 713-3722
(1 -- color) Minal Vyas of Woodland Hills watches as 5-year-old daughter Neha works on numbers at the Kumon center in Woodland Hills.
(2 -- color) Barbara Lee of Kumon works with Neha Vyas. The tot is enrolled in tutoring even though she hasn't yet begun kindergarten. ``Right now I think their minds are like sponges. If it helps her in achieving, since it's become so competitive, I'd like to go for it,'' said mom Minal Vyas, shown in background.
Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer