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Valley Parenting : Fitting In Free Time : Educators warn that too many child enrichment classes may lead to burnout.


The choices seem endless, a smorgasbord of brain food for growing bodies and developing minds. But in the clamor to supplement our children's education with an exhaustive and exhausting array of after-school enrichment classes, something precious may be lost.

"Where is their fun?" asks Eileen Zelig, a Chatsworth mother of three children--two in elementary school and one in junior high. "I am concerned about the kid who is 18 and has had every class but is headed straight to therapy."

As often as not, Zelig's children head for gymnastics, horseback riding, jazz dancing or karate classes after school. Yet she is adamant about leaving time for less-scripted pursuits such as "lying on the lawn and looking at clouds."

"The bottom line for me is that these are still little kids," she says.

Besides the recreation-oriented enrichment courses Zelig's children prefer, children throughout the Valley can find specialized instruction in subjects ranging from computer literacy to Egyptology.

The range of opportunities can be exciting or daunting, depending on how much structured time a child can handle.

"There are kids being schlepped from school to ballet to computer classes to lessons in classical Greek," says Leo Lowe, assistant superintendent for educational services in the Las Virgenes Unified School District. "Kids can reach a burnout stage."

Parents place their children in enrichment classes for two primary reasons, according to Akiko Koide-Gomez, director of the Kumon Center, an accelerated mathematics and reading enrichment program in Westlake Village.

"Some are behind in the classroom and need extra help," she says. "Others are doing well already and wish to go beyond their grade level."

Koide-Gomez proudly points to a 6-year-old student who is learning multiplication, and to a 9-year-old studying pre-algebra. Most of her 45 students thrive, she says, because Kumon methods differ from those in conventional classrooms.

"At school, everybody sits and the teacher teaches at the blackboard," she says. "Here, everybody is studying at their own pace."

Excelling in a classroom setting is not the way every child wishes to spend after-school hours, however. Public school teachers and administrators recognize burnout in some children who are whisked from one enrichment class to another, yet they are reluctant to tell parents to lighten up.

"We view [enrichment classes] strictly as the parents' decision," says Manuel Ponce, an administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District's parent-community services unit. "What parents decide to do with their children beyond the regular school day is their business."

There are opportunities for enrichment at the eight Las Virgenes elementary schools themselves. Parent-faculty groups at each school raise funds to bring in specialized instruction in a variety of areas. The on-site enrichment classes are conducted during and after the regular school day.

"Teachers can monitor the classes and all students have the opportunity to take them," Lowe says. "A modest amount of parent-faculty funds are set aside for kids who cannot afford the classes."

Storefront enrichment programs are, of course, profit-making businesses. The cost of many courses can force even the most zealous parents to pick and choose carefully.

"I'm always on the lookout for fun learning opportunities that are affordable," says Eileen Bishop of Chatsworth, a single mother of 14-year-old Matthew and 12-year-old Allison. "But they are difficult to find."

Opportunities increase when money is less of a factor. Kim Spenchian, an executive with a computer company, and his wife, Linda, an LAUSD teacher, have kept their three daughters busy with enrichment classes for several years.

"My children are highly motivated," Linda Spenchian says. "I've loved poking around and putting them in all sorts of things."

The Spenchians are finding, however, that as their daughters grow up, other interests take hold. The oldest, 14-year-old Jessica, has become less inclined to dash from school straight to more school.

"At this point, she seems happy enjoying her friends," says her mother.

Once a child reaches high school, the demands of being a serious student can dampen motivation for enrichment classes. Matthew Bishop, who graduated with honors this year from Porter Junior High in Granada Hills, has long taken courses through the Gifted Children's Assn. of the San Fernando Valley.

That may end, his mother says.

"This fall, with honors chemistry, algebra and everything else, would anything extra be worth it?" she asks.

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