Local enrichment program Be Smart Kids educates youngsters as early as 18 months old.
Big things are happening on Middle Tennessee’s early education front, and it’s called Be Smart Kids (BSK), an innovative learning curriculum founded more than 10 years ago by Donna Blevins in tiny Greeneville, Tenn. Blevins, BSK’s executive vice president of marketing and development, says, “I didn’t dream this would be where I would wind up.”
Indeed, she is a bit off her intended path. It was 1991, and after a career in teaching and then politics, Blevins decided that she wanted even more to “do something positive and make a contribution.” After consulting with a computer-savvy friend, Blevins says they put a learning curriculum on a computer, headed out into the community and began teaching kids one-on-one.
Since the early days of driving computers to schools, BSK has evolved into two learning centers (one in Murfreesboro, one in Brentwood), hired a new CEO – Warren McPherson, M.D. – and enlisted a roster of kid-clients lined up out the door. It was a desire to give back similar to Blevins’ that lured McPherson from a career in neurosurgery to his new position at the helm of BSK.
“You can ruin a kid by not stimulating him,” says McPherson. “And, the converse of that is true, too. You can make them smarter by stimulating them.”
Scientifically speaking, McPherson explains that as the brain develops, the bed cells migrate out to the cortex and form a network of dendrites. The richness of that network is what determines how fast a person can manipulate information, “which is basically IQ.” And, for McPherson, this neurophysiology is proof positive that “if you stimulate the heck out of kid from 1 – 5 when that process is going on, you’ll get a kid who knows more.”
Current research shows that the window of time to maximize a child’s foundational learning is in the first five years (see sidebar). BSK has built a business on that fact.
The BSK curriculum, taught to children ages 18 months to 5 years, is comprised of 70 lessons and 650 modules, all of which take roughly three to four years to complete. Lessons include letters and numbers, sounds and vocabulary, addition and subtraction, introductory Spanish and even character values like kindness and sharing. Each weekly session lasts for 30 minutes and can be taught at a center by a qualified teacher or at home by a parent or caregiver. But, how do you get a 2-year-old to sit still for 30 minutes?
“The reason we start kids in school when they’re 5 or 6 is because that’s the first time we can sit 30 of them down in a room and have some kind of attention span,” says McPherson. “For younger kids, If we take them one-on-one, and you put your child in front of a computer and she has cartoons to watch, and you stay with her, she’ll stay there for a long time.”
It’s the one-on-one teaching, McPherson says, that’s the key to success when teaching children as young as 18 months. That, and of course, the BSK program. “It’s a combination of everything that is good about a parent teaching a kid – the one-on-one,” explains McPherson. “Then you combine it with what a good teacher knows – phonics, teaching methods, reinforcing curriculum.” It’s when these two elements are coupled with cartoon-like computer graphics, he says, that you get smarter kids.
Marcia Young, manager of the Murfreesboro learning center and a BSK teacher, agrees. “They may come in and only stay 10 minutes the first time, and 20 minutes the next,” she says. “But, by the third session, I’m having to pry them away. That’s one of the differences between this kind of learning versus the old way of sitting down and using a pencil and paper. This is what they’re used to now – they’re more accustomed to being entertained.”
Old School Revised
While nothing can replace learning to read and write with paper and a pencil, it is a new generation. Kids are entranced by graphics. Rather than allowing them to become “vidiots,” or children dumbed down by visual entertainment like computer games, television and videos, the BSK curriculum corrals that visual interest and marries it with a multi-sensory, step-wise curriculum.
“The kids can trace out the ‘A’ on the screen, so it’s tactile,” says McPherson. “It’s auditory because they hear it from the computer, and they hear it from the teacher.”
“And, it’s just 30 minutes once a week,” adds Young, “so there’s also going to be plenty of time to read to the child and for them to play outside.”
Where’s the Proof?
According to Young, her students begin to show advancement soon after starting the program, usually six weeks to two months into it. What’s more is that the parents see results not only in their child’s academic abilities, but in her character as well. Parents say that “there’s a lot of curiosity, and they start asking a lot more questions,” says Young.
Additionally, a recent study found that first graders who attended the BSK program tested at the fourth grade level – three grades above the national average. It then becomes a matter of keeping these kids challenged in the classroom. For that, McPherson offers a simple solution: “You send them to fourth grade for math and English.”
McPherson says that one of his goals as CEO is to investigate the long-term results of BSK, beyond high school and even college. For now, though, since the program is considerably new, results are only trackable for BSK alumni who are currently of high school age. McPherson boasts that every former BSK student that they have kept up with is in the 98th or 99th percentile in their class. “And not only that,” he says, “they’re also taking Advanced Placement and honors classes.”
Others to Benefit
Another goal of McPherson’s during his time “in office” is to get the BSK program into more day cares, Head Starts and even the public school system. Though the curriculum is designed for children up to 5 years old, McPherson points out that no child stops learning when she’s 5. “If we can verify scientifically – pre-test these children, give them the program and post-test them – and prove that they’re superior, then I think the good school systems will adopt it,” says a hopeful McPherson.
In a Class By Itself
BSK is a one-of-a-kind program, says McPherson. While there are plenty of other software products, educational toys and learning tools on the market, BSK is the only organized program to use the methodology and multi-sensory stimulus in a one-on-one setting. It’s also the only one to offer a guarantee that every child enrolled in the program will come out ahead. “The kids who go through this program, no matter what their economic status, will get to kindergarten reading,” says McPherson.
Perhaps that’s what attracted McPherson to leave the land of scalpels and sutures: the possibility to change the futures of tomorrow’s leaders. “If you think you can change 10 kids or 1,000 kids or 100,000 kids – you teach them how to read and add and subtract,” he says, “you’ve made a real contribution to the world.”
Ashley Driggs is senior editor for this publication.
Windows of Opportunity
Research shows that children learn best in the following windows of time:
- Social/emotional Birth to 18 months
- Vocabulary Birth to 3 years
- Math and Logic Birth to 4 years
- Motor skills Birth to 5 years
- Language Birth to 10 years
- Second language Birth to 9 years
- Music 3 – 10 years
- Spatial/visual arts Birth to 3 years
Where Do I Sign Up?
144 Uptown Square, Murfreesboro; 890-0922
500 Wilson Pike Circle, Ste. 120, Brentwood; 377-7746
To attend sessions at the learning centers, the cost is $25 per session, or $100 per month. If you’re interested in teaching your child the BSK curriculum at home, the software is available for purchase in the centers or on their website, www.besmartkids.com. A free demo’s available online, too. Prices for purchasing the software are as follows:
Complete curriculum (levels 1 – 4): $449.99
Levels 1 and 2: $199.99
Levels 3 and 4: $279.99
Payment plans are available. The software is only PC-compatible.