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Lodi gains new learning center

Huntington and other centers help struggling students

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Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 7:08 am, Thu Jan 10, 2013.

Signing up for extra lessons can be the answer for many kids struggling to understand material in the classroom. But not all teachers have time to stay after school for tutoring sessions. That's where local learning centers can fill in the gaps — though the prices may be prohibitive to some families.

Huntington Learning Center opened in January under director Andy Bossaller, marking the third learning center to open in Lodi since 2000.

The center is a small cluster of offices and an open floor of study carrels in the Raley's shopping center on Lower Sacramento Road.

Bossaller moved with his wife to Lodi three years ago while working for ITT Technical Institute. When he retired in June 2012, Bossaller wanted to stay in education, so he opened up a Lodi branch of the Huntington franchise, which was founded in 1977.

The center offers tutoring in reading, phonics, math and study skills, as well as in advanced math and science subjects. They also prepare students for high school entrance exams and the SAT and ACT.

Bossaller and Erica Naves, assistant director, will be joined by four or five part-time teachers. The center is open all day, but most students come in for lessons after school. The instructors are a crew of retired and substitute teachers, as well as a few still working in the classroom.

Bossaller was hard-put to define an ideal student.

"Anyone struggling in school, really," he said.

Younger students need more help with study skills, while older students tend to need more help with specific subjects or preparing for a test.

The enrollment process starts with an barrage of tests that could last up to four hours. The student's results are entered into software that creates a kind of academic prescription detailing the number of hours a student needs to reach his or her goals. Parents meet with instructors at least once a month to track progress. The cost depends on the number of hours each week that a student attends Huntington.

Students do not bring their homework or books to the center. Huntington works from their own curriculum to build a student's study skills. On a rare occasion, a student might bring in a particularly challenging calculus or other assignment if they are studying that subject. Bossaller said Huntington works to create a strong bond between the child's classroom teacher and his or her tutor.

"We want to link what we do with the classroom, and to create a partnership among the parents, teachers and the center," he said. "Parents are looking to help their students get back on track. The response has been positive from teachers. They are looking for additional help. We have never had an adversarial role."

Four Huntington centers operate in the Sacramento area. Many Lodi and Stockton families were driving north to attend, said Bossaller, but few students have signed up for the Lodi center yet. Bossaller did not release pricing information.

A child's success in the classroom does not always determine whether a learning center is right for them. Bossaller said some parents look at study centers as an extra edge to boost grades for college entrance.

Thought Huntington is expanding, Bossaller said the current budget struggles in schools are not the trigger.

"We've been doing this for 35 years," he said. "I'm not sure if there is a curve right now. It's not about the state of California education. It's about demographics."

Room for multiple centers in Lodi

Lodi's two existing tutoring centers, Kumon Math and Reading Center and the Harp Learning Institute, say they aren't worried about competition, because each focuses on addressing skills differently.

Director Lisa Harp was an elementary school teacher before founding the Harp Institute in Valley Springs in 2000. Her own son was struggling in school, even though she knew he was a bright child.

Harp created a program to figure out what basic skills a child is missing, like gross and fine motor skills, and to build connections between the right brain and the left brain.

Lessons are focused on students with learning challenges like dyslexia or short-term auditory or visual memory problems. The institute is also equipped to help autistic students.

Pupils receive a free placement screening before classes begin, or can undergo a diagnostic assessment for a fee. Each student spends an hour or two a week in the center working through the 15 activities on their chart for the day.

"They do brain exercises, eye tracking, cross lateral movements. Our kids are up and moving. It's very fast paced," Harp said.

The cost is between $95 and $550 a month, depending on the student's plan. Instructors are not all certified teachers, but they are trained by Harp in the center's methods for three months. Harp said she looks for patient people who are good with children more than for a teaching degree.

The Harp Institute has three centers in Lodi, Valley Springs and San Francisco. The Lodi branch opened in 2007 and has 35 students.

Kumon Math and Reading Center was founded by a Japanese math teacher trying to help his child with math homework in the 1950s. In 1958, the first Kumon Center opened in Japan, and the center has added reading classes since then.

The chain came to the United States in 1980. The Kumon Center in Lodi opened in 2011, and currently has 100 students taught by 12 instructors after normal school hours, said director Cynthia Hsieh. They are located on Kettleman Lane. Hsieh did not release pricing information.

"Kumon emphasizes that practice makes perfect. We don't want to hold our students' hands. We want to help them to be able to figure out a solution on their own," Hsieh said.

Hsieh said Kumon is not trying to replace schools. Instead, they use a supplemental curriculum to foster critical thinking and independent learning.

"Teachers don't have a lot of flexibility. It's not because they don't want to; they don't have the flexibility in their schedules to work with students way above or way below grade level. We want to help teachers to better work with these students," she said.

Working hand-in-hand with classroom teachers

When she was a teacher, Harp said she did not feel as if she was doing a sub-par job when a child received tutoring outside of class.

"I always felt relieved and happy," she said. "As a teacher, you might notice the child needs help, but with 30 kids in the room, you don't have the means to help them like someone else could."

Teachers advise parents to look closely at any program that they pay for their children to attend.

Nanci Johnston, a teacher at Beckman Elementary School, says the quality of the student's progress will vary depending on the company their parent signs them up with.

"There are some places out there that are more in it for the money than for the students. Upwards of $50 an hour is a little outrageous," she said.

And some teachers do not trust the guarantee some centers offer that students will raise their grades to a certain level, she said.

"Of course someone getting one-on-one help is going to excel versus someone in one-on-30," Johnston said.

Ideally, a child should be receiving a full education at their school site. But if a child needs extra help, there are not always ready outlets. Schools with lower-income families or schools on improvement schedules are given extra money for tutors. But students at schools without that funding must find their own options for extra lessons.

George Neely, a trustee with the Lodi Unified School District, sees learning centers as one more piece in the puzzle of educating kids.

Most kids do just fine in the classroom, he said. But there's a niche group that needs something more, and the district is unable to afford that extra for each child.

"Kids come to (Lodi Unified) at different levels of preparedness," he said. "It would be almost impossible to try to hit everything."

Teachers often recommend their students for extra tutoring if the parent finds a program that is a good fit.

"Everyone responds to being taught something differently. I can explain it one way, and the teacher right next door can explain it almost the same way. But the child can hear something different," said Johnston. "I'm all for (parents) going out and getting extra services if they feel their child is struggling."

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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