Four-year-old Sam Albertson furrowed his brow and rubbed his left eye with a small fist as he counted red dots on a page as part of his second math lesson at the Gilbert Kumon Math and Reading Center. It was just one part of his 40-minute session, which also included a chunk of time devoted to teaching the boy how to read.
His mother Kelli wants him to be able to read by the time he starts kindergarten at Rancho Solano Private School in Gilbert next year.
“I want him to have an easier time in school and be ahead of the game,” Albertson said. “I don’t expect him to be a genius. I just want to give him that extra help.”
The Gilbert mother is part of a national trend: Parents who enroll their children in pre-kindergarten classes and tutoring prior to sending them to kindergarten.
“For parents that come here and start early, they’re already looking way into the future,” said Barbara Penaloza, owner and instructor of the Gilbert Kumon center.
Many parents, such as Albertson, have their sights set on college preparatory high schools or prestigious colleges and scholarships. This is a way for their child to have an edge over the competition, Penaloza said.
But some early childhood education specialists are concerned about parents pushing their children further along in school curriculum at younger ages.
Pam Powell, assistant professor of teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University, said the topic is a controversial one and parents should consider whether the child is ready for certain goals such as learning to read before kindergarten.
“There may be children who are ready and eager to read before they go to kindergarten and others it may be tough for,” said Powell, formerly a teacher in the Gilbert Unified School District. “How do you decide which child is which? It’s not like there’s a recipe right for everyone.”
Powell favors balancing playtime with learning time when teaching prekindergartners. She encourages parents to take their time and let their child learn through methods designed for their development level.
“We need to be cautious of being competitive with our children,” Powell said. “Each child is an individual, and each child’s development is individual.”
At the Gilbert Kumon center, Penaloza said students run through various drills until they master basic math and reading skills.
“There’s no fun and play. They do number boards, drills for words and math cards pretty much right after the other,” she said.
Tutoring centers typically test children to determine their skill level before creating a program based on the parents’ goals.
Centers such as Kumon and Sylvan Learning Centers emphasize building confidence and fostering a love for learning.
Albertson admits that 4-year-old Sam isn’t a big fan of his math drills so far, but says he’s excelling in reading.
She enrolled him in the program after she heard other moms from Rancho Solano Private School were sending their young children to the tutoring classes and getting positive results.
The international company’s Junior Kumon program enrolls students ages 4 to 6. They attend two 40-minute sessions each week and complete worksheets the other five days of the week for a minimum of a year. Parents spend about $2,400 per year if their child is enrolled in both math and reading classes.
Growth in tutoring programs offered by Kumon and Sylvan Learning Centers has skyrocketed over the past three years.
The international Kumon Math and Reading Centers reports a 115 percent rise in enrollment for students ages 4 to 6 since 2003.
Sylvan Learning Centers report about a 40 percent enrollment increase in the same age group in the same period. Sylvan created a beginning reading program for 4-year-olds three years ago after many parents across the country requested it.
Reasons for the growth vary, but officials with the centers agree that more rigorous academic standards in public schools play a part in the demand.
“With the schools being held to higher state standards, (the kindergarten curriculum) is moving more quickly and it becomes sink or swim,” said Amy Shumway, executive director of three East Valley Sylvan Learning Centers. “Parents are very proactive (and often say), ‘No matter what my child is going to have to do, I want to make sure they’re going to be able to be successful and get through’ ” kindergarten.