Tanya Zeif got her first tutor in first grade after performing poorly on California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test. Soon after, she was excelling. In second grade, however, her teacher told her parents to stick with the tutor. If she kept paying for private help, who knew how high Zeif might fly?
“It wasn’t that I was just past tutors,” said Zeif (’13), who is heading to University of San Francisco next fall. “It was that I could get to a whole new sphere of awesomeness.”
Zeif continued to meet with tutors once a month, off and on, all the way through senior year. But after hundreds of hours of effort and hundreds of dollars in expense, she’s not sure if it was necessary.
“It might help; it might not,” she said. “I’m kind of confused about it. It’s just really what you bring to it. And I know that you can do (well in school) without a tutor — no doubt about it, you can.”
Tutors @ Urban
Though Zeif may believe that students can be successful without tutors, a Legend survey suggested that many students do not feel the same way: One in three Urban students is privately tutored.
The survey, which was conducted from March 25 to April 1, received responses from 76 randomly selected Urban students at a range of grade levels. Twenty-eight percent reported receiving free tutoring, 31 percent paid $51 to $75 an hour, and seven percent paid more than $100 an hour. Some 38 percent of respondents reported being tutored because they have a “learning difference.”
Even so, the statistics don’t answer two key questions: Who gets tutors — students who need them, or students who can afford them? And how can schools keep the academic playing field level, when some students have tutors and some do not?
Riley Maddox, Urban math teacher, sees tutoring as a good way to catch up to the standard that a student needs to achieve in the classroom.
“I think there’s a point where, for whatever reason, you can be so behind in terms of content knowledge, that you kind of do need that support at least for awhile to just be able to have help identifying what you need to know to solve math problems,” Maddox said.
Similarly, Jonathan Howland, an Urban English teacher of 25 years and dean of faculty, believes that tutoring can be necessary for students who come to Urban without meeting the basics of reading and writing.
“This is a really hard, impossibly impossible school to navigate if you need the basics,” Howland said. “I think we can more successfully bring kids up to speed in (foreign) language, in math, and increasingly in science, than we can in reading and writing.”
Last September, in an effort to provide more students with no-cost tutoring, Urban began an afterschool study hall from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., which is staffed with a humanities specialist five days a week and a math and science specialist two days a week.
The study hall, which is open to all students, was created for athletes who needed a quiet workspace between school and sports. Today, the study hall has proved to assist many more. According to Laurie Williams, learning services coordinator, approximately 75 different students have made use of afterschool study hall in its first academic year. Urban plans to continue it next school year.
Howland, who is a fan of loosening up the Urban schedule to create more free time for students to get more one-on-one help, has a vision for upgraded Urban tutoring, especially when it comes to learning equality.
“In another iteration of The Urban School, I would like to see a more robust, more accessible, learning services center — sort of like a resource center,” said Howland. “Urban can and will do a better job of building out a more robust services center as we grow.”
Addressing range of skills
Even as Urban continues to offer tutoring opportunities, private tutors remain popular.
Private tutors are seen as able to get results: In the Legend survey, out of 26 students who had a private tutor, only one said that the tutor did not help the student to receive higher grades or better course reports.
Andrew Lovett, founder of the San Francisco-based tutoring company “Liminus Learning,” who charges $160 an hour, has tutored about a half a dozen Urban students over the last four years. Tutors are able to address a wide range of skills, he said, which can be challenging for just one teacher to address in a single classroom.
“I like to try to invite students to walk through the door into their next steps as a student and as an intellectual,” said Lovett.
“So I’ve had students, where their next step, as far as I can tell, had to do with comma use, or the parts of speech, and I have (had) students whom their next step is probably getting their work published in an independent journal because they are doing so much outside research and they know so much and they’re such amazing scholars that they’re ready to be published.”
Agi Wojciechowska, who tutors six students at Urban in math and/or science, said tutors fill in learning gaps.
“I think that some students benefit from just being able to ask questions individually,” Wojciechowska said. “I have a pretty strong science and math background, so I can kind of talk about things that are ahead and also go back to basics that might be missing.”
But Lovett and Wojciechowska go a step further: Sometimes, they said, they assist students when writing emails to their teachers, particularly when asking for extensions.
Lara Bajakian (’14), who was previously tutored in science and is now tutored in French and writing, is all for private tutoring.
After struggling through her first year and a half of French, Bajakian found that private tutoring was the key to success.
“This year I have just improved so much with the language. I’m able to say most things that I’m trying to communicate,” said Bajakian. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Bajakian, who had a peer tutor during her first year of French, does not think the peer tutor program is as helpful.
“Peer tutors … can help you with some questions you have on your homework,” said Bajakian, who is a peer tutor herself. “But ultimately when it comes down to it you really need a tutor who you’re paying who’s extremely devoted to you.”
Cost and long term impact
The disadvantages of private tutors, however, are clear: Time, and money.
Shane Bannon (’14) has never used a private tutor, but is not a fan of its prevalence at Urban.
“I think that especially in this school it’s something that is most often reserved for the high-class people who can afford to get tutored,” said Bannon.
Suzanne Forrest, Urban’s academic head of school, takes a neutral position.
“Tutoring can be helpful in times of real need,” said Forrest. “But in the long picture it’s not so helpful.”