Just about anybody can hang out a shingle to teach martial arts.
Many schools are storefront operations that may seem mysterious to uninitiated parents seeking to enroll their karate-minded kids.
"By and large, any school in the Yellow Pages is a relatively OK place to send your child," says Steve Carrasco, owner of Carrasco Taekwon-Do in Needham, Mass.
Fly-by-night instructors and hobbyists, he reasons, won't bother to be listed, and in upper-middle-class suburbs, high rents rule out casual startups.
But just having the means to own a business or the black-belt instructors to staff it doesn't ensure it will be a good fit for children.
"I'd be wary of an instructor who is so gung-ho that he's trying to create warriors or someone who is so traditional that he operates a school just like a military academy," Mr. Carrasco says.
Rob Colasanti, vice president of the National Association of Professional Martial Artists, which works with about 2,000 schools and has created a teacher-certification program, urges parents to shop around - for both the right school and type of martial art.
"The average person, in shopping for martial arts, doesn't know the difference between good- and poor-quality martial arts, but they know universal things about a business," he says. "Look at the cleanliness. Is the facility spacious? Are the instructors polite and professional? And are they good working with children?"
Charlie Foxman, who owns the Midwest Martial Arts Academy in St. Louis, says the winnowing process often begins with a phone call. If all you get is a recording or a long wait for a return call, that might indicate a part-time operation.
Mr. Foxman suggests asking if a child can take a complimentary lesson. "If not," he says, "I'd pass. In the first weeks or month, he adds, it's important to avoid any binding contracts.
At his academy there are no contracts at all. "You're free to come and go as you please," he says. "What that does is keep the onus on me to keep the child and parents happy; otherwise they'll leave."
Teachers should be open to having parents watch a class, says Kevin Stefanek, a Michigan State University graduate student with experience in teaching martial arts to children.
"Watch the instructor and see how he or she teaches," he suggests. "Pay attention to what they are teaching. Is that something you want your child to learn? Also look at the students to see how they are acting and reacting. That may be a more honest indication of what's going on, since the instructor may change behavior depending on who is watching."
Most martial-arts schools charge by the month, with payments generally ranging between $65 and $120, depending on the market. Typically students attend two sessions a week and take classes year-round.
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