Private, for-profit learning centers are growing in popularity for their ability to teach reading and mathematics outside the traditional classroom. Worldwide, more than 2.5 million students get instruction through Kumon Centers, which specialize in mathematics instruction. There are 40 Kumon Centers in suburban Detroit and other large cities in Michigan.

Too often, parents of students who are having trouble coping with traditional school environments or teaching methods believe the public sector is the only place where they can get help.

But that is not the case. In fact, a wide variety of private, for-profit teaching establishments offer help in subjects ranging from basic reading and math to writing, ACT/SAT preparation, and study skills. Three centers in the mid-Michigan area alone offer such services: the Ounce of Prevention Reading Center in Flushing, the Kumon Center in Mt. Pleasant, and the Sylvan Learning Center in Saginaw. Two of the centers specialize in particular subjects, while Sylvan covers a variety of areas. The goal of all three centers is to help students who have learning disabilities or have struggled in traditional education programs.

Sylvan claims that 8 out of 10 of its students improve one grade-level equivalent in reading or math by their first progress check.

The Ounce of Prevention Reading Center was founded by Nora Chahbazi, now the owner and primary instructor of the center, following years of success teaching her daughter and friends' children how to read. Chahbazi employs a new reading method called "Phono-Graphix" to teach her students. She discovered Phono-Graphix in the book "Why Our Children Can't Read" by Diane McGuinness, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida.

Phono-Graphix, says Chahbazi, is the antithesis of traditional methods of reading instruction, which teach students symbols (letters) and the corresponding sounds and emphasize spelling rules and memorization. Phono-Graphix operates in reverse, building off of what students already know about sounds and speech. Phono-Graphix students are taught that the sounds they know can be represented in print by "sound pictures," or letter combinations. Ounce of Prevention not only teaches this method to its own students, but also works closely with local teachers to provide remedial services for students who need them. Parents and teachers learn the Phono-Graphix method so that they, in turn, can use it to teach other children to read.

"Studies have shown that almost all children instructed in Phono-Graphix-students who struggled with traditional reading methods-achieved their grade level or better in just 12 hours," Chahbazi says.

She hopes to expose teachers across the state to the Phono-Graphix method so that all children struggling with reading can receive help.

The Kumon Center in Mt. Pleasant focuses on math. Gene and Susan Kushion, who run the center, are experienced public school math teachers who were impressed by the Kumon program's effectiveness in improving their daughter's math skills. Kumon Centers are an import from Japan and are springing up across the United States and Canada. According to a Kumon newsletter, "Kumon New Quest," 2.5 million students are enrolled worldwide, including 75,000 in the United States and over 30,000 in Canada. Michigan already has 40 Kumon Centers concentrated in suburban Detroit and larger cities throughout the state.

The goal of Kumon is to make learning a student-driven activity, and to put the responsibility on the student, not on the teacher. It is common to see students faltering in math, after a year or more working with a Kumon Center, achieve mastery at one or two grade levels above their current grade. Those who choose to can follow the program all the way beyond differential and integral calculus.

According to literature from the international Kumon Institute, "Decades of experience with hundreds of thousands of students have shown that learning occurs most efficiently when two criteria are met: 1) The level of the material to be learned corresponds exactly to the learner's level of ability, and 2) the rate of progress is controlled by the students, not the teacher." Using these criteria, Kumon is able to turn problem math students into motivated, self-starting, quick learners.

The Sylvan Learning Center in Saginaw attempts to create confident, independent students by discovering and targeting the causes of academic frustrations. When students arrive at the center they are given a comprehensive skills assessment exam to determine areas of weakness. Next, a personalized curriculum is created for each student that addresses the underlying issues in an attempt to eliminate them. Students are taught how to check their own work and learn independently. The exact length of each child's program depends on specific academic needs uncovered in the skills assessment. At Sylvan, programs typically range from 50-100 hours of instruction. On average, each student receives 2-4 hours of instruction per week.

Sylvan Learning Centers-of which there are 900 worldwide-teach students on a wide variety of subjects through a teaching method they call "Mastery Learning." Students are required to prove that they have "mastered" a concept or skill by using it 3 to 5 times, with 80-100 percent accuracy. When a student demonstrates this level of proficiency, he or she can progress to the next skill. Students are periodically re-tested on skills in order to ensure retention.

Sylvan encourages students in their studies by providing motivational incentives. These incentives come in many forms: personal praise and verbal reinforcement from the instructors, personalized certificates, or gift tokens to be spent later. The individualized attention every student receives is possible because of a 3:1 student-teacher ratio.

Sylvan claims that 8 out of 10 of its students improve one grade-level equivalent in reading or math by their first progress check. After 20 years in the business, Sylvan is confident it can help any child get ahead in its "Basic Math" or "Academic Reading" programs. In fact, Sylvan promises parents joining the program, "Your child will improve at least one full grade-level equivalent in reading skills or basic math skills after 36 hours of instruction, or we'll provide 12 additional hours at no further cost to you."

These three private education centers are helping children, no matter where they go to school, to succeed in academics where they would have otherwise failed. Because they are private, they are free to experiment until they find what works. And they're achieving measurable improvement where traditional schools have failed.