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Tutor is no longer a dirty word

With the cooler weather of fall comes a milestone dreaded by some families, the first report card of the school year.

Parents who aren't satisfied with their children's grades may wonder what to do.

"Usually the day right after report cards come out we're full of parents who want a video on phonics or a book that teaches grammar," said Mary Seratt, manager of the children's department for the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. "None of them are the fast fix I think people are looking for."

Many parents also turn to tutoring services, which report a surge of phone calls around report card time. Tutoring is an option more parents and students are choosing because it has become more accepted, and more resources are available.

"There's no stigma on it," said Susan Brown, whose daughter, Sandy, recently woke up before dawn for tutoring in math before school from a teacher at Germantown High School in Memphis and stayed for more help after school. Sandy, a junior, also meets occasionally with classmate Sameer Samana for tutoring in advanced placement biology. "A lot of kids ask for help. The teachers encourage it so much," Susan Brown said.

In the past 10 years, commercial tutoring resources have at least doubled, estimated several tutoring company owners. And there's more free tutoring available at public schools and a variety of nonprofit organizations, including 33 listed with LINC, the Library Information Center.

Educators gave this advice to parents who don't like the first report card: Don't panic, don't punish immediately and don't rush to pay for tutoring.

First, sit down with your child and ask if he or she can explain the grade, suggested Betty Hurt, director of the division of instructional support at Memphis City Schools. "Maybe the child will admit they goofed off," she said. Then talk to the teacher, school counselor and principal for recommendations.

"You have to try to figure out what is the problem," Hurt said. "Punishment is not always the best response. It might be the best attention-getter, but does that take care of the overall picture? It's much better if you can create a positive that eliminates the barriers so it can be a long-term gain."

Goldy Harrell, an educational resource specialist at a Memphis elementary school, also recommended that parents check first with schools because most have some kind of tutoring program. "I'd find out can I get this service free," Harrell said.

Some students, particularly in high school, sign up for tutoring on their own initiative. The desire for grades good enough to get into college, to play basketball or just to graduate was strong enough for about eight students to seek help from teacher Sharon Taube one day recently.

Adam Loeffel, a junior, goes to Taube's tutoring sessions two to three times a week because he's determined to get into a good art college. "I think a lot of people do a whole lot better one-on-one. She's not going to leave until you understand," he said.

Fredrick Gates has been a regular at Taube's sessions since last year, including the day before Christmas holidays. "I need to work hard to learn more. It helps a lot," he said. With him were two geometry classmates, Brian Collins and Ja'Near Allen, who wanted to bring up their grades for basketball.

Taube is paid through an extended contract program to provide tutoring two days a week but stays one to three more days per week on her own. "Two days is not a lot to help people," she explained. "They all come because they have a desire to learn."

But if students don't ask for help _ and educators say that many won't _ how can parents tell if a tutor is needed?

"The first thing you have to do is look at your own abilities and your own time limits," said Hal Russell, principal of Ridgeway High School in Memphis, who described himself as a strong advocate of tutoring.

If parents don't have the time or disposition for tutoring, they may need to look at the resources around them, he said.

Harrell said strong indications that a child needs tutoring include consistent grades of C minus or below and test scores below grade level on the achievement test taken in the spring. Harrell cautioned parents not to do homework for the child.

But the source of a student's poor grades could go beyond academics. "Sometimes it's not that they don't understand. It's other things, maybe a death in the family or divorce," Hurt said. "You've got to look at the total child _ mentally, emotionally, socially and physically."

Improvement in learning is a long-term process and tutoring doesn't always help a child, said Doug Parham, director of creative development for Fournier Learning Strategies. Instead of tutoring, this private educational counseling group focuses on helping students improve their learning processes regardless of the subject matter.

Educators also gave this advice about tutoring:

If you plan to tutor your own child, take it one step at a time, be patient and use the approach of listening and asking questions. "Ask: What do you think? How do you think we could approach this? Let the students discover on their own."

Don't put a child in tutoring for six weeks and then take him out. "It takes a little longer than that. Some kids have not mastered prerequisite skills," Harrell said.

If you choose outside tutoring, it's important how you present the idea to the student, said Susan Ison, owner and director of Memphis Tutorial Association, a local association of private tutors. Ison suggested that parents say something like this: "Everybody struggles with some thing or another. When you struggle, if you can't do it, get help. You may need that all the way through life. If you needed the air-conditioner fixed, you would call an expert. There's nothing wrong with calling on experts to help you."

Keep in mind that students can become too dependent on a tutor, Russell said. "They won't listen in class because they think they can learn it from the tutor."

For tutors outside the school, there are many sources. "Be creative. Ask around," Hurt said. "A lot of times peer tutors, family, neighbors, college students, senior citizens or members of your church can be tutors."

Check out commercial tutors closely. But don't ask for advice from public school officials because they do not recommend tutors as a matter of policy. Get the names of parents who have used the tutoring service and talk with them.

Don't give up. "Instead of getting mad, keep working until you find out what the problem is," Hurt said.