Lorraine Jarron of Calgary was stunned. Her daughter Erin, in Grade 10, had always been an above-average math student in Ontario. But when they moved to Alberta she was behind -- far behind. And suddenly, the 15-year-old's future was in doubt.
"If she doesn't get 70 per cent in math, she won't get into advanced math and she won't go to university," school officials told Ms. Jarron. At the same time, her son David, in Grade 2, was behind in reading. "You better get him a tutor -- or else," she was told.
The Jarrons enrolled the two children in an after-school program run by Sylvan Learning Centre -- at a cost of about $600 a month -- to make sure they could keep up with their peers.
The experience of the Jarron family is part of an unheralded but stunning reversal in Canadian education. For years families have offloaded social problems onto teachers and administrators. Now, paradoxically, it is the academic problems that are coming to rest on the parents' shoulders.
Across Canada, so-called supplemental learning or tutorial programs are enjoying enormous growth, as more and more parents feel their children are not getting the education they need in regular school hours. What's more, schools themselves, acknowledging their inability to offer intensive help to all their needy students, are referring parents to costly after-school programs.
The popularity of these programs underscores the heightened anxieties among today's parents. Parents believe -- sometimes with good reason, as in the case of Ms. Jarron -- that shortcomings in their children's academic performance could have a devastating impact on the rest of their lives. And so they are willing to reach deep into their pockets to help.
"It's becoming part of the everyday school system," Michael Bateman said of the supplemental programs. He is president of Grade Expectations Learning Centres, which has 15 centres in Ontario.
The implications for equality are obvious. Children in families that cannot afford the extra help will be left behind.
"They used to say public school is free. I don't think so any more," said Angela Vemb, who sends her 11-year-old daughter to a Kumon Math and Reading Center in Halifax, at a cost of $150 a month.
With 350 centres across Canada, Kumon has a particular insight into the shortcomings of the country's schools, both public and private (private-school children, too, attend supplemental courses).
The main reason parents send children to after-school "schools" stems from concern that they lack the core reading, writing and math skills to achieve at their grade level, according to Laurie McNelles, an educator with Kumon.
For an education system obsessed with testing for basic skills, that may seem a surprise. But those very tests suggest parents have good reason to be anxious. In Ontario, more than 60 per cent of Grade 6 boys and 40 per cent of Grade 6 girls fall below the provincial standard in writing. In Alberta, almost 40 per cent of Grade 9 students are below standard in math.
The Jarrons aren't the only parents to be shocked about their children's situation. Sean Nelson, a 12-year-old in Vancouver, was a C-plus student. It was his brother Andrew, 10, whose reading was a concern. Their parents took them both to a Sylvan Learning Centre to have them assessed. What they found out about Sean stunned them. He was reading at a Grade 4 level.
"I was quite shocked and I thought maybe there was a problem with the test," said his mother, Vivian Nelson. But in another way, she was not surprised. She had always felt his writing was below standard. That he was a C-plus student simply suggested that standards were lax at his public Catholic school.
She enrolled Sean at a Sylvan Learning Centre, at a monthly cost of $375. (The parents could afford it: Ms. Nelson is an accountant and her husband is a lawyer.) It involved two afternoons a week, and Sean had to sign a contract that he would read three to five times a week, for 20 minutes at a stretch.
Within six months, the turnaround was so dramatic that when Sean's test results showed his reading comprehension at a Grade 10 level, she insisted he be retested.
"Sylvan goes back to basics," Ms. Nelson said. "The kids miss out on some of the building blocks in school, and the school system keeps moving the children ahead, whether they're ready to succeed or not. Sylvan assesses the children and goes back to their level, and develops the skills the children need."
Ms. Vemb and her husband were so concerned about their daughter's academic difficulties they suggested the school hold her back in Grade 5, but they were told the school did not do that at such a young age. Besides, said Ms. Vemb, "her teacher said, 'Oh no, she's right along with the rest of the class.' My husband and I would say, 'Oh my God, the rest of the class is doing this bad?' "
Where there is extra help in school, teachers seem to batter against the students' learning problems with little effect. Erin Jarron took an after-school class with the math teacher whose lessons she had been having difficulty following. But there was just one way of teaching and those who didn't get it felt stupid. "It didn't help at all," the 15-year-old said.
At Sylvan, she brought in her homework and worked closely with her instructor, who had just four pupils to teach. Soon she had made enough progress she could enroll in advanced math, and now feels bound for university once again.
How do school officials view the trend? Brent MacLeod, principal of John Wanless Junior Public School in Toronto, said an after-school program can be a good support. "I'm not sure it's essential, but it's often helpful. It would be nice if everybody had the option to pursue what they offer, but we don't all, do we?" In his view, the use of these programs reflects more vigilant parents, rather than school shortcomings. "People are generally more aware of children having to meet certain standards than they used to be," he said.
Parents may also be more anxious. Everyone is talking about how the knowledge-based, high-tech economy creates a need for smart, versatile workers; universities are more competitive; schools are pushing children harder to keep up.
The message in all this for parents: "You better know what is going on in the schools if you want your children to make it," Ms. Jarron said.
The percentage of students taking an hour or more of additional school lessons or tutoring for science. The figures include after-school and weekend instruction.
13-year-olds 16-year-olds B.C 15 16 Alta 8 13 Sask 5 8 Man. (e) 7 9 Man. (f) 17 17 Ont. (e) 14 13 Ont. (f) 11 12 Que. (e) 16 16 Que. (f) 12 14 N.B. (e) 11 13 N.B. (f) 9 11 N.S. (e) 7 13 N.S. (f) 8 13 PEI 6 12 Nfld 14 20 Yukon 9 12 NWT 11 16 Nunavut 16 11
(e) English (f) French Source: Council of Ministers of Education of Canada
Growth of private after-school tutoring centres: Kumon Math and Reading Centers Average monthly enrolment (national): 1996: 24,000 1997: 27,000 1998: 30,000 1999: 31,000 June, 2000: 33,000 Grade Expectations Learning Centres (Ontario-based)
Average length of stay per child: 1998: 3.5 months 2000: 5.7 months Growth in enrolment from 1999 to 2000: 35 per cent Sylvan Learning Centres Average monthly enrolment (national): 1995: 5,500 1999: 9,000 mid-2000: 10,300