As parents flip through magazines in a waiting room decorated with Ivy League college banners, their children work, doing the kinds of things that might someday get them into those schools.

The children do math and reading assignments as part of Kumon, an after-school learning program that has been around for 50 years.

The program is both for kids who are behind schedule and those looking to stay ahead of the curve, said Marilyn Masters, who owns the Foothills Kumon Center at 2900 N. Swan Road.

"The way I explain it is, it's like working out at a gym," said Masters, who has run her center for 12 years. "You see people there that are totally out of shape, but you appreciate that they are making the effort to get better. And you see the people who are in great shape and they want to maintain that."

It's not cheap: Kumon programs cost between $80 and $110 per month, per subject. Students come to their center only once a week and are usually there only 20 to 40 minutes, but they also receive work to take home for each day between sessions.

Kumon was developed in 1958 by Toru Kumon, a high school math teacher in Japan who discovered that his second-grade son was struggling with math.

Now the program is offered in 44 countries worldwide at more than 26,000 learning centers, including 1,278 in the United States.

As of November, roughly 6 million children were in Kumon programs, including more than 180,000 in the U.S.

Locally there are three Kumon centers, including two on the Northwest Side.

Masters was introduced to Kumon 14 years ago when she enrolled her two children in the program. They also became her first two students, and she credits their work in Kumon for son Blake and daughter Crystal's graduating from respected colleges, Stanford and the University of San Diego, respectively.

Kumon is different from other after-school academic outfits, Masters says, because its math and reading programs are self-paced and based entirely on the abilities of the participants.

"This is not your regular classroom," Masters said. "In here, everybody is doing something different. It's totally individualized. What they're doing in school can be totally different than what we're doing here. We don't think of them only in terms of, well, you're only a first-grader, this is as far as you can go. It's about what you can handle. When they work here for a long enough time, we surpass what they're doing in school."

An example of this is 7-year-old Jennie Yoon, a second-grader at Manzanita Elementary School in the Foothills.

Jennie's first task when she came to Kumon last Wednesday was to do a series of division problems that Masters says are normally not taught in U.S. schools until the second semester of third grade.

Jennie, who has been in Kumon since preschool, said she enjoys doing both the math and the reading work, though her preference varies.

"Sometimes when I start the math, I start liking it, but I like reading more," Jennie said.

In his third year of Kumon, Ventana Vista third-grader Gavin Cohen credits the math assignments he gets at Kumon for improving how he does in school.

"It's getting me a lot of good grades," Gavin said, shortly after earning two Kumon dollars — which can be redeemed for prizes — for getting a perfect score on his math assignment.

Kumon students also earn rewards for longevity, such as the bookstore gift cards Diane Nelson's two elementary school children earned on their one-year anniversary.

Though they do "OK" in class, Nelson said, she put her kids in Kumon to help them focus better on the basics.

"It's just to keep their minds moving," Nelson said. "They do complain at home (about coming), but when they're here I think the staff does everything they can to make them have fun."

Stephen Cox said his son, Joseph, 17, has Asperger syndrome, and it causes him to struggle with math. Four years into Kumon, though, Stephen Cox said he's noticed an improvement because the program has allowed Joseph to work at his own pace.

"It starts at a very simple level, and it's a very slight increase in difficulty," Stephen Cox said. "It's a really gradual ascent."

Cindy Wood, field consultant for Kumon's three Tucson centers, said it is recommended that students stay in Kumon for at least one year, though most end up staying much longer.

"They spend the first six months polishing the basics, and then we can start getting them at or above grade level," Wood said.

It's the seventh year of Kumon for Olivia Valencia, 15, a freshman at Salpointe Catholic High School. Her mother told her she could stop after eighth grade, but Valencia said she enjoyed the challenging work that enabled her to test into sophomore-level math when she entered Salpointe.

"I just feel really good about it, that I could do something hard," Valencia said.

As far as the Ivy League banners go, Masters said some parents have asked if those are meant to drive Kumon students toward those schools.

"I'm trying to promote academic aspirations," Masters said. "It's like how kids have posters up in their room of Steve Nash, and some have posters of 'High School Musical.' "

About Kumon

What is it? Kumon is an after-school math and reading program that focuses on basic skills to either reach, maintain or exceed the level

students have reached in school.

Where is it? There are three Kumon centers in the Tucson area.

How much is it? Kumon costs between $80 and $110 per month, per subject. There is also a one-time registration fee of between $30 and $50.

How long does it take? Students go to their centers once a week for about 20 to 30 minutes

— longer if they are doing both math and reading. Students are also given daily work to do at home.

Where can I find out more? Kumon's Web site

Tucson-area locations

• Kumon Foothills, 2900 N. Swan Road, Ste. 200. 327-1779.

• Kumon Northwest, 4101 W. Hardy Road (

inside Tortolita Middle School). 360-8729

• Kumon Oro Valley, 11115 N. La Cañada Drive, Ste. 201

. 229-1295.

● Contact reporter Brian J. Pedersen at or call 434-4079.