When School’s Not Enough

With so many to choose from, everyone agrees it’s important for parents to explore before settling on the right education center.

By Colin Daileda | Photography by Erick Gibson

With so many to choose from, everyone agrees it’s important for parents to explore before settling on the right education center.

MORE SCHOOL?

Brooke Murphy, 6, walks to the window at the front of the Sylvan Learning Center and peers out, looking for her mom. It’s around 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and she knows it’s about time to get picked up. Her mom isn’t here yet, though, so she wanders into the center director’s office.

“How was school this week?” asks Belencia Wilds, the director of Sylvan Learning Center’s McLean branch.

“Good,” Brooke says.

“Good,” Wilds says, in that kidding but prodding adult tone. Then she asks, “What was your favorite part?”

Brooke’s shoulders stop swaying. She thinks: “Recess.”

“Oh no!” Wilds says, then rethinks it. “Well, I guess that’s always a good thing.”

Brooke and Wilds are right. Who doesn’t like recess? For children especially, how much better is it to do whatever they want, within reason, rather than be told to sit in a classroom and think? And how much better is recess when some of that thinking doesn’t come naturally?

Recess is a tough act to follow, but learning centers such as Sylvan are working to make kids better learners, thereby boosting their confidence, which makes them feel more at home in the classroom.

“They start to raise their hands more, they start to get kudos more from the teacher, and it forms a positive cycle,” Wilds says.

Brooke’s mom, Janice Murphy, arrives. She sits down in a chair across the desk from Wilds and Brooke, who moves from the doorway to a grown-up chair that looks like an office throne swallowing her tiny frame.

Murphy says that Brooke needed a bit of helping with reading, and she was afraid that she wouldn’t have time to bring Brooke up to speed by herself. “We really wanted to make sure that she was going to get the attention that she needed,” Murphy says.

Murphy had brought Brooke’s older sisters, now 19 and 13 years of age, to various Sylvan learning centers when they were much younger. They needed some support in math, and Murphy liked the results. So when she noticed Brooke might need some reading assistance, she went back. “I think there’s definitely more confidence [after the tutoring],” Murphy says.

Maureen Loftus at Learning RX in Reston

Brooke has just started attending Sylvan. Murphy would like her daughter to stop by for an hour or so a few times a week, like Brooke’s sisters did, but for now traffic keeps them from getting there on weekdays. For now, Saturday sessions and Brooke’s elementary school will have to do.

Brooke’s asked where she goes to school.

“Stoddart Elementary,” she says as the right corner of a smile pokes out from behind a Gatorade.

How do you spell that?

Brooke mumbles something.

“Come on, we can sound this out,” says Wilds.

Brooke, still smiling, grips the Gatorade bottle a little tighter and musters a soft giggle.

Not this time, but maybe soon.

DIFFERENT METHODS

Like kids, every learning center is different. There are also plenty of them. In addition to the ones mentioned in this article, there is Kumon, which has plenty of locations, Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, and many others.

This Sylvan center sits in a combination office park-strip mall, on the second floor of a dark brick building, above a hair-coloring salon.

Wilds’ room is small but not cramped, and she shares it with another woman. Each has a computer, and they work with their backs to one another, looking over their shoulders whenever they want to chat.

Wilds says that tutoring happens when the parent or child asks for help, whereas school is viewed as a “I must go.” She doesn’t fault teachers because some students need extra help, it’s just how things happen given classroom sizes, among other elements.

“Although they always say a teacher has eyes coming out of the back of her head, she doesn’t have them coming out her ears, out her back and everywhere else.”

Sylvan provides more focused attention for students, Wilds says, because they have more teachers per student than regular classrooms. “At a three-to-one ratio, the tutors or the instructor is able to assess the student more quickly.”

Sylvan’s idea is to consider why the parent or student has approached them, and see if the child really does need help in, say, math, or if there are gaps to fill in the learning process that will help the child more than poring over long division. They will also help with standardized test preparation, and they teach test-taking strategies.

The McLean center is small, with 35 students who go there on a regular basis, but they have branches all over the Metro- D.C. area.

So does Novastar Prep, a center that doesn’t like the label “learning center” because, as their founder Rehan Dawer says, it implies that they’re force-feeding information to children when they’re actually just helping them develop the means to solve complex problems and to see how subjects such as chemistry and algebra feed off one another.

Dawer, a self-described “recovering investment banker,” quit finance to find what he wanted to do next.

“When I was able to spend time with [my kids] on a very large scale, I began to see certain gaps in how education is conducted today,” says Dawer.

He didn’t see that kids were being taught how to connect different subjects, and Dawer thought he might be able to help fix that.

“What I saw is that teachers were going to be inundated with classroom management and wouldn’t be able to teach,” says Dawer. If everyone learns a little bit differently, he thought, then how is one person supposed to spend enough time with all 30-plus students?

Dawer set up his own process. Novastar believes in one-on-one teaching and building a relationship between the tutor and the tutee, so students feel comfortable around their instructor and will be more open about what’s ailing them, or what they want to learn more about.

Dawer also believes that much of the cognitive ability to do better in school is already within most kids, they just don’t know how to use it.

Say a student gets a 75 percent on a test, he says. The “C” says the child is average, and, depending on who her parents are, she will either hear something along the lines of “oh, that’s alright, better luck next time,” or “this grade is unacceptable.”

But the tutor would look at a grade and ask how that 75 percent made the student feel. If they say average, the tutor would help the student look at the grade through a different lens.

Step two is getting the kid to understand how he solves problems, says Dawer. The tutor will go over all the questions to the test the child just got a 75 percent on, including the ones he got right. As they’re going over the correct answers, Dawer says, the instructor will ask them to solve the problem out loud. They’ll ask questions such as “How did you get that?” and “Why did you do that?” until the student starts to understand how he solves test questions.

Then, Dawer says, they move to the wrong answers, and the student generally gets half of those right this time around, brining that grade up to around an 88 percent, a “B.”

Step three is to ask the kid if they’re now capable of just a five percent improvement, because that already leads to an “A” (at least in most schools).

The goal is not only to help students become better learners, Dawer says, but to make them more critical readers who are able to glean less obvious information from the material they read. That’s how big ideas are generated.

Google and Twitter and other companies weren’t read about and then created, Dawer says he tells some students. They recognized information that wasn’t obvious, realized there was a gap to fill in society, and they went for it.

Like Dawer’s organization, there is another in NoVA that doesn’t like the label “learning center.” This one, called Learning RX, prefers “brain training center,” and they mean that literally: In order to improve your child’s learning abilities, they aim to train their brains.

Maureen Loftus, who heads Learning RX, says that what happens inside her center is not at all like what goes on in a traditional classroom. Learning centers, she says, usually map achievements in subject areas like math or English. They want to build your ability to take it all in, which means building a child’s cognitive abilities. After all, she says, if a kid’s problem is that they don’t know how to process the information, shoving more material at them won’t help.

“Tutors are great when you have a bad teacher who is not good at conveying information” or when a student was out of school for a chunk of time, Loftus says. “There’s a niche for them, but when most kids go to a tutor, they’re really missing cognitive skills.”

Loftus believes in intense training for one to one-and-a-half hour sessions, a few times per week. Their sessions consist of a bunch of five seven-minute drills that build different parts of the brain. Why the intensity? Because, Loftus says, a 10-minute brain-training session is like going on 10-minute walks several times a week to train for a marathon.

What “brain trainers” at Learning RX do, Loftus says, is take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity. In the same way that a person who has had brain trauma that effected their cognitive skills can relearn what they knew before, she says so can these students build new pathways in their brain that allow them to better process information. And if they can process information more efficiently and effectively, Loftus says, they won’t ever need a tutor.

OVERDRIVE

How much is too much? Like most everything that relates to tutoring, it all depends on the individual child. But other factors, such as how many times per week a child attends sessions and how long each session lasts, can factor in to the process.

“I think kids do need to be approached with a variety of activities and a way to use their time,” says Dr. Robert Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia and the founder of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. “If a kid is spending six hours a day in a pretty demanding classroom environment where they’re struggling a bit, then to spend a couple more hours in an equally demanding environment, to do that day in and day out can be a bit tough. So it’s really important for parents to ask their kids when enough is enough.”

Belencia Wilds agrees with this point. She says it depends on the child, because “some kids are going to be tired because they have soccer, dance, piano…”

But she also feels that many kids have so much energy that there never seems to be enough for them to do. After all, she says, when Wilds was a kid, she was outside all day until someone called her home for dinner, and no one talked about burnout then.

It’s also notable that tutoring is not necessarily something that needs to last a lifetime. “Most of the time it sticks with them,” Wilds says. “It fills in the fundamental gaps.” And once those gaps are filled, it’s easy to keep using those learning muscles.

“If you’re dancing, you’re learning,” Wilds says. “If you’re playing piano, you’re learning. If you’re watching TV, you’re still learning.”

Loftus, for the most part, agrees. “It’s always going to be there,” Loftus says. “Once they’ve gone the fast way, they’re not going to go back to the slow way.”

The reason most kids don’t need to go back is because improved cognitive skills are used every day, in situations that range from how to solve a math problem to how to react to an irrationally angry friend to how to blow by an opponent on a soccer field. Once you’ve built up improved cognition systems, the brain has no need to go back to the way it was, like a person who had been trying to dig a hole with a small plastic shovel, but has now engineered that plastic tool into a metal shovel and a pick axe.

But Loftus warns that once kids are out of an environment where they’re learning a lot every day, cognition begins to deteriorate. People’s cognitive skills generally peak one to two years out of school, Loftus says, and then the brain starts to deteriorate, because those pathways aren’t used as much. They’re like unused trails that, in fall, get covered in leaves. They don’t just fall off a cliff, but they do get weaker.”

But she also says that if a person focuses on some sort of learning in their life—office training or an intellectual hobby—their cognition shouldn’t take much of a hit.

There are a lot of options in the after-school learning world, and choosing one that is the right fit for a child can be difficult and nerve-wracking.

“Tutoring is really effective, particularly most effective when a child is getting tutoring on mostly what they’re working on in school,” says Dr. Pianta. “It’s really important that the focus of the tutoring is aligned to the work that a child is doing in class. Otherwise there’s a lot of tutoring that isn’t well-aligned to what is going on in the classroom, and there’s not really well-defined goals.”

Many centers agree.

“We work with students right in line with school material,” Dawer says. “We know that if you inundate children … they’re going to become overwhelmed.”

Tutoring also has the potential to help just about anyone, from straight “A” students, to those struggling with a particular subject, to a child who is having problems with school in general.

“Good tutoring is going to boost all kids,” Pianta says. “But it’s particularly helpful for kids that are struggling.

“There’s not really much evidence to think it would be benefitting kids at one age more than another,” Pianta says. “It’s certainly the fact that you see more kids moving into tutoring when they move into middle school and high school and beyond. Oftentimes the match between the kids and classroom instruction can be less well-suited to them, so tutoring can really help kids focus on topics related to exams a little better.

Dawer agrees, but points out that parents should consider how their child is learning at a certain age. Two-year-olds, he says by way of example, are playful and curious in how they approach things, but as children get older, their learning process becomes a more focused exploration of what’s out there.

Parents will have to do some exploring of their own if they want to pick the right place. John Torre, the public information officer of Fairfax County Public Schools, says that he can’t help evaluate the pros and cons of different centers. They have their own set of tutors, and like everyone has said, where a child finds help is based on that kid’s specific needs.

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