Leveling the Playing Field: ABC-Learn West Hills, Calif.

By Linda Jacobson — November 11, 2005 3 min read
Eddie Mayorquin takes a moment to collect his thoughts as he works with his tutor. The 10th grader says he appreciates the help in mathematics.

Because Eddie Mayorquin doesn’t feel well, Faith Singer, who has tutored him for three years, promises to keep the session brief. With each math task—a worksheet on rounding, a number in the quadrillions for which he has to name all the place values, and a run through the addition and subtraction flashcards—she reassures him that he’s almost finished.

Sitting at his kitchen table this Saturday morning, while his mother, Maria Flores, folds laundry on the couch, Eddie, a 14-year-old 10th grader, is subdued, asking only a few questions.

“I tend to find that high school kids forget their basics, because they’re so used to working in algebra and geometry,” says Singer.

A former employee of a technology-management company, Singer decided to work with children after losing her boss in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in 2001.

“I want to work with troubled kids,” says Singer, who is one of about a dozen full-time tutors for ABC-Learn. The nonprofit group is one of 11 tutoring providers for the Los Angeles Unified School District that offer one-to-one home visits to thousands of students who qualify for free tutoring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

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Leveling the Playing Field

Throughout the session, Singer tries to give Eddie helpful strategies to arrive quickly at the answers. For subtraction problems, she reminds him of the “three B’s—when the bottom is bigger, you borrow.”

Flores says she chose an in-home tutor for her son because of the convenience. And since Eddie has one hour of kickboxing practice every day after school, weekends work better for his schedule. “We really needed this kind of help,” his mother says.

Singer says Eddie was struggling with dyslexia when she first tutored him as a 7th grader. In 9th grade, he was working at a 6th grade level in language arts. But by the end of the year, with help from his tutor, Eddie’s performance had jumped three grade levels.

“I was so impressed,” Singer says, adding that in a five-paragraph essay Eddie wrote, he misspelled only one word.

ABC-Learn, which operates in California and Oklahoma, was founded in 1996 by Debra Greenfield to tutor teenagers held in juvenile-detention centers. Private sessions work, she says, because students can “ask whatever they want to ask because they won’t look stupid. When they realize they aren’t stupid, it impacts their personality.”


Founded: 1996 by Debra Greenfield to tutor teenagers in juvenile-detention centers.

Education Model: Nonprofit organization offers one-on-one help for students in their homes.

Size: 120 tutors working with 900 students in LAUSD.

So far, Greenfield—who describes herself as a “teacher wannabe” who ended up going to law school—has been running the program out of her home in the San Fernando Valley community of West Hills. But she will soon move the operation into the space of a former print shop in the city of San Fernando, where students and members of the community can use computers that are being donated by Southern California Edison.

So far, about 120 ABC-Learn tutors are working with 900 Los Angeles students, but Greenfield says she is aiming to hire another 70 or 80 tutors. She tries to match tutors with students in their own communities. Some tutors, she says, also prefer working with students at certain grade levels or with particular needs.

Regardless of her recruits’ personal interests, Greenfield tests them to see how they’ll respond under pressure.

“I put them in situations to make their palms sweaty, because I want them to know what that child is going through,” she says.

Near the end of Eddie’s session with Singer—as always, it ends with a game—his mood perks up a little. As Eddie slaps cards from the game Uno down on the stack, he says Singer is able to help him understand concepts he misses in class.

“She goes through the steps,” he says. “My math teacher just writes the problem on the board and says, ‘Do it.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Leveling the Playing Field: ABC-Learn West Hills, Calif.