In Julie Chan's Classroom Playing with Computers Is Kid Stuff
Matthew is enrolled in CompuKids, a three-month-old storefront "school" in West L.A. It is typical of the perhaps 200 new computer-training firms set up nationwide by entrepreneurs taking advantage of cheap ($1,000 or so) desk-top models. CompuKids is exclusively for kids, with its 200 pupils ranging in age from 5 to 13. Co-founder Julie Chan, 40, firmly believes that it is never too soon to become familiar with such arcana as printouts, memory banks and computer "languages" that go by such odd names as FORTRAN and COBOL. "Computers are part of our lives now, whether we like it or not," she explains. "Within five years, students will be expected to have 'computer literacy' before going to college."
Students are charged $100 for the CompuKids course, which involves an hour of classroom instruction a week for 10 weeks. The kids train on 12 small Commodore computers, which they program to play simple but instructive games—many of them number puzzles and word quizzes. In one exercise, for example, the youngsters match wits with the machine in finding antonyms and synonyms. Besides familiarizing students with computers, the course is intended to help them appreciate logic as well as improve their skills in spelling, typing, problem solving, hand-eye coordination, concentration and reading.
It's fun too. "I love computers," says Steven Glassman, 12. "I want to program my own games and challenge myself." That is why CompuKids have it all over their elders, who are apt to fear—or hate—the very machines that send them bills and sometimes bungle their checking accounts. Says John Nordquist, co-founder of a nearby private school, "Kids take them for granted. They approach them as a toy first, then as a tool."
Chan started CompuKids with Ellen Newman, a fifth-grade teacher at Roscomare Road School in L.A.'s posh Bel Air section. Fascinated by the idea of introducing kids to computers early, Newman decided to open a one-room electronics schoolhouse and sought help from Chan. Julie, on leave as an associate professor of teacher education at Cal State-Long Beach, had been interested in computers since she first used them as a research tool when she was a graduate student. Chan and Newman paid $8,000 for their dozen computers and rented a former real estate office for $600 a month. Chan devised the curriculum and shares the actual teaching.
Julie's parents, Chester and Lee Tang, a real estate investor and garment sample maker, were the children of immigrants who came to the U.S. from Canton as laundry and railroad workers. When she was 12, she says, she "decided to be a principal. To be a principal, I first had to be a teacher." To that end, she picked up a B.A. and an M.A. in education at UCLA and USC, as well as a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado. Along the way she met and married her husband, Lyman Chan, a hospital pharmacist, and also changed her given name, which was May. That, she explains, "sounded too Chinese, and I liked Julie. It was Julie time—Julie London, Julie Christie, Julie Andrews."
With CompuKids already breaking even—though neither Chan nor Newman draws a salary yet—the partners are expanding. Among their plans: courses for teenagers and adults (to be called "CompuFolks"). Julie describes her teaching style at CompuKids as a process of "challenging" her charges: "I'll tell you about it and show you how," she says to them. "I'll do it with you. Then you do it by yourself." During classes, she says happily, "you can see the wheels turning in the students' heads. They get frustrated at first. Then, when it hits, you can really see the light go on."
That kind of learning becomes addictive, she says: "One day a little girl told me five minutes before class was to end that she didn't want to go home, that she wanted to stay here all night. When I asked her who would keep her company, she told me, 'The computer will.' "