- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

Sophia Smyrnios, 13, dropped from a B in math to an F when she moved from Germantown to Herndon in the fall. Along with her plummeting grade went her self-esteem.

“I was really mad at myself. I’m not used to grades like that,” Sophia says. “I was embarrassed. … I didn’t feel good about myself.”

Moving from one school district to another or going from one type of school to the next, such as from elementary school to middle school, often poses a challenge for students, says Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman, director and founder of the Herndon-based business Tutoring for Success, which serves about 150 clients in the Greater Washington area.

“It can present a big problem, and it’s really important for parents to keep abreast of what’s going on with their children,” Ms. Feuer Gedzelman says. “Don’t wait too long to get help.”

Plenty of help is out there for students who fall behind or for the superambitious crew that wants to have an edge when college application time rolls around. There are private tutors, public school-based free assistance, educational counselors who help research schools to determine the best placement for a student, learning centers such as Sylvan, and textbooks parents can use to boost their own skills and acquire teaching techniques.

Where does a parent start?

With the child’s teacher, says Bill Holliday, professor of education at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“You need to know what’s going on in the classroom,” says Mr. Holliday, who holds a doctorate in education. “Ask the teacher; ask the child. Find out what the problem is.”

Sophia and her mother, Sandra Smyrnios, talked to the math teacher and decided the teen needed extra help beyond the homework assistance her school offered once a week.

Ms. Smyrnios, who works as an office manager for a group of doctors with practices in Virginia and Maryland, decided she would try to help her daughter. It didn’t go well, she says.

“I know algebra, so that wasn’t the problem,” Ms. Smyrnios says, “but it’s hard to go from being a mother to being a teacher for one hour. It was too easy for Sophia to say, ‘I don’t have time right now.’”

The Smyrnioses decided to hire a tutor, Kimberly Brox of Vienna-based Mindworks Tutoring Services, and within six weeks, Sophia went from an F back to a B in math.

“Bringing someone in from the outside, Sophia was more inclined to focus on the subject,” Ms. Smyrnios says. “She shows Mrs. Brox respect.”

It’s very common that parents, even if they are well-acquainted with the subject, be it reading and writing or math, can’t help their children with schoolwork, Ms. Feuer Gedzelman says.

“I have parents who are engineers who can’t help their children with math,” she says. “They say their children won’t listen to them, won’t focus.”

In these cases, parents who can afford it often look for outside help, which can be private tutors, learning centers or educational counselors.

Tutoring options

These three types of businesses work a bit differently. Private tutors usually come to the student’s home in the evening or on the weekends and give the student a one-on-one lesson, says Grace McMullin, owner and founder of Mindworks, which serves about 400 students in Northern Virginia.

“Many students feel more comfortable in their own home, and they do better one-on-one with the tutor than in a group,” Mrs. McMullin says.

Her company, however, offers both group and private lessons, with rates running from $30 to $60 an hour. Mindworks and other private tutoring companies usually don’t require long-term contracts, she says. Parents simply pay for one lesson at a time.

“Every child is unique, and you don’t know how many lessons you’ll need or if the child and the tutor will get along,” Mrs. McMullin says. “We want to stay flexible. We think it benefits both the child and the teacher.”

Learning centers, such as Sylvan, usually require long-term contracts. The teacher-to-student ratio is typically 1 to 3. The cost starts at about $45 an hour, and the long-term contracts may require as many as 60 sessions. The lessons are conducted in classroom settings at learning-center locations.

Signing on to a long-term contract creates consistency for the students and allows them to delve more deeply into problem areas, be they a lack of organizational skills or specific subject issues, says Barbara Johnson, spokeswoman for Sylvan.

“We believe that our services will allow students to catch up, keep up and get ahead,” Mrs. Johnson says.

Before starting a program, Sylvan tests the student on work habits and the subject in question. Then a program is tailored to that student’s needs, Mrs. Johnson says. It’s not just about helping the student with current homework, it’s about improving the student’s overall ability to succeed in school, she says.

“If we can help them with their organization skills, for example, that’s going to help them a lot once they get to college,” Mrs. Johnson says.

The students have to share an instructor, but that is not a problem for most children, she says.

“They actually end up feeding off each other, especially in the SAT prep classes,” Mrs. Johnson says. The teacher-to-student ratio there is 1 to 6.

Most teachers and tutors at agencies and learning centers are state-certified teachers, according to local agency and center owners. Mrs. McMullin, however, advises parents to inquire about educational background and experience just to be on the safe side.

A third type of service available for students who want to do better in school is educational counseling, in which educational counselors, or consultants, help determine what is the best school placement for a child (private, public, boarding) and whether the child requires special-needs help.

One such agency is the School Counseling Group, based in Northwest. Its founder, Ethna Hopper, says educational consultants are well-equipped to find the best type of school environment for a child as opposed to just helping youngsters with individual subjects or study techniques.

“I think one of the good things about educational consultants is that we’re generalists,” says Mrs. Hopper, who has 44 years of experience as a guidance counselor.

She and her colleagues work closely with area schools, therapists, doctors and other professionals as well as parents to get a full picture of the student’s needs. They are not affiliated with the schools they place and receive no payments from them.

The agency looks at everything that affects the student’s performance, “and we solve the mystery of what makes school placement compatible or incompatible,” Mrs. Hopper says.

The agency charges $650 to $2,000 for finding the best school placement for a student.

Free help

While tutoring agencies, learning centers and educational counselors are getting a lot of business, not all parents can afford them — at least not for an extended period, Mr. Holliday says.

Some parents decide to hire a tutor for a short time to jump-start the child’s skills, others try to do it alone, and a third group will try to get as much help from the school as they can.

“Ask guidance counselors and teachers at the school about what after-school programs might be offered,” says Brigit Dunn, a counselor specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools.

“The schools offer a wide range of programs, and parents should check out all the opportunities that are available and then pick what suits them best,” Ms. Dunn says.

Some schools provide Saturday programs; others offer one-on-one teaching.

If an after-school program isn’t convenient or sufficient for the student and there is no money for a private tutor, the work may just fall on the parent, Mr. Holliday says.

“Parents need to ask teachers about resources that are available to them so they can help their children with homework and other assignments,” he says.

Parents also can help their children by setting up a study schedule for the youngsters to manage their time better. It also helps to have a calendar on which deadlines for short-term and long-term assignments are indicated.

Mr. Holliday also suggests keeping an open mind about what the best study environment is for the child.

“If a child says he’s learning best when he’s listening to hip-hop, let him try to it,” he says.

Another important consideration in establishing good, productive study habits is finding a good place to work, Mr. Holliday says.

For Sophia, that place is a bright kitchen nook in the town house she shares with her mother.

On a recent afternoon, she and Mrs. Brox worked on ratios and rates.

“What is the biggest number that goes into 6 and 12?” Mrs. Brox asks.

After thinking for a minute, Sophia says “6.”

“Nice,” Mrs. Brox says. With each answer Sophia gives her, Mrs. Brox replies with encouragement.

“The work has to get done, so you may as well make it as enjoyable as possible,” Mrs. Brox says.

Hiring a tutor worked out very well for Sophia, who doesn’t like to ask questions in the classroom, in front of 30 other students.

Regardless of what homework and study solutions parents come up with, they all want the same thing in the end:

“I want to give Sophia all the tools I can to enable her to be as successful as she can be,” Ms. Smyrnios says.

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “OVERCOMING UNDERACHIEVING: A SIMPLE PLAN TO BOOST YOUR KIDS’ GRADES AND END THE HOMEWORK HASSLES,” BY RUTH PETERS, BROADWAY BOOKS, 2000. THIS BOOK PROVIDES PRACTICAL TIPS ON HOW TO REWARD PERFORMANCE, BUILD A CHILD’S SELF-CONCEPT, HELP CHILDREN BATTLE APATHY, AND IDENTIFY COMMON BEHAVIORAL PATTERNS AMONG PARENTS AND CHILDREN THAT LEAD TO ACADEMIC UNDERACHIEVEMENT. IT IS APPROPRIATE FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN IN GRADES ONE THROUGH 12.

• “HOW TO GET STRAIGHT A’S IN SCHOOL AND HAVE FUN AT THE SAME TIME,” BY GORDON W. GREEN JR., FORGE, 1999. THIS BOOK SHOWS STUDENTS HOW TO BUDGET TIME, TAKE NOTES, TAKE TESTS, ACQUIRE EFFECTIVE STUDY TECHNIQUES AND IMPROVE SELF-CONFIDENCE.

• “BRIGHT MINDS, POOR GRADES: UNDERSTANDING AND MOTIVATING YOUR UNDERACHIEVING CHILD,” BY MICHAEL D. WHITLEY, PERIGEE, 2001. THIS BOOK OFFERS A 10-STEP PROGRAM TO MOTIVATE UNDERACHIEVING CHILDREN AND HELP THEM SUCCEED IN SCHOOL. IT ALSO IDENTIFIES SIX TYPES OF UNDERACHIEVERS FROM THE PROCRASTINATOR TO THE HIDDEN PERFECTIONIST TO THE CON ARTIST.

• “SEVEN STEPS TO HOMEWORK SUCCESS: A FAMILY GUIDE FOR SOLVING COMMON HOMEWORK PROBLEMS,” BY SYDNEY S. ZENTALL AND SAM GOLDSTEIN, SPECIALTY PRESS, 1999. THE SEVEN STEPS IN THIS WORKBOOK CAN HELP PARENTS FACILITATE PRODUCTIVE HOMEWORK TIME FOR THEIR CHILDREN. CONCEPTS DISCUSSED INCLUDE HOW TO A DEVELOP A PRODUCTIVE HOMEWORK ALLIANCE WITH YOUR CHILD, BUILD A LEARNING STATION, ASSIST WITH HOMEWORK COMPLETION AND TEACH YOUR CHILD TO WORK INDEPENDENTLY.

ASSOCIATIONS —

• INDEPENDENT EDUCATIONAL CONSULTANTS ASSOCIATION FOUNDATION, 3251 OLD LEE HIGHWAY, SUITE 510, FAIRFAX, VA 22030. PHONE: 703/591-4850. WEB SITE: WWW.IECAONLINE.COM. IECA IS A NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT OFFERS STUDENTS AND THEIR FAMILIES INFORMATION REGARDING SCHOOL SELECTION ISSUES.

AGENCIES, CONSULTANTS, CENTERS —

• SCHOOL COUNSELING GROUP INC., 4725 MACARTHUR BLVD. NW, WASHINGTON, DC 20007. PHONE: 202/333-3530. WEB SITE WWW.SCHOOLCOUNSELING.

COM. THE SCHOOL COUNSELING GROUP HELPS PARENTS AND STUDENTS WITH TOPICS SUCH AS NEGOTIATING THE MAZE OF SCHOOL APPLICATIONS, WHERE TO TURN IF YOUR CHILD HAS SPECIAL NEEDS, DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS AS WELL AS HOW TO HELP THE UNDERACHIEVING STUDENT.

• MINDWORKS TUTORING SERVICES, PO BOX 963, VIENNA, VA 22183. PHONE: 703/242-7951. WEB SITE: WWW.MINDWORKSTUTORINGSERVICES.COM. VIENNA-BASED MINDWORKS TUTORING SERVICES PROVIDES TUTORING FOR ABOUT 400 CHILDREN OF ALL AGES IN NORTHERN VIRGINIA. CLIENTS PAY FOR ONE LESSON AT A TIME, AND SMALL-GROUP AND ONE-ON-ONE LESSONS ARE AVAILABLE.

• SYLVAN LEARNING CENTER, 4694 KING ST., ALEXANDRIA, VA 22302. PHONE: 703/671-5621. WEB SITE: WWW.EDUCATE.COM. SYLVAN LEARNING CENTERS WAS FOUNDED IN 1979 TO PROVIDE INSTRUCTION TO STUDENTS OF ALL AGES AND SKILL LEVELS. THE CENTERS PROVIDE GROUP INSTRUCTION, WITH THE MOST COMMON TEACHER-TO-STUDENT RATIO BEING 1:3. THERE ARE DOZENS OF CENTERS IN THE GREATER WASHINGTON AREA AND MORE THAN 950 CENTERS IN THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA.

ONLINE —

• Tutoring for Success is a Herndon-based tutoring service whose Web site, www.tutoringforsuccess.com, offers articles on tutoring and how parents can help their children with study habits. Parents can request a tutor using the Web site or by calling 703/390-9220 or 301/838-7640.

• The Parent Pages, a local family phone book, provides dozens of entries of tutoring services and educational consultants on its Web site, www.theparentpages.com. For a copy of the phone book, contact the Parent Pages, 8300 Second Ave., Vienna, VA 22182. Phone: 703/698-8066.

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