Wary of how the school year will unfold, Colorado parents are seeking out both alternatives and supplements to whatever their school districts might be offering.
We spoke with Stephanie Rosalky, founder of Wash Park Tutoring, and Brian Galvin, chief academic officer for Varsity Tutors, a national company that offers programming in Denver, and asked them the same questions about how the pandemic has changed their businesses, what they’re hearing from local parents, and what programs they’re offering for school year 2020-’21.
5280: Both Wash Park Tutoring and Varsity Tutors existed in a pre-pandemic world. What were your business models before *waves arms in the air* all this?
Brian Galvin: We’ve been around since 2007-’08. Around 2011 we really started to push into online tutoring; we felt that was where the future was. In the past five years, we started doing small group classes and some online test prep courses. We really felt like it was important that we provide accessible learning; anywhere someone wants to learn something, we want to provide it. Of course, all of this movement online prepared us a little for COVID-19. We had to fast-track some things; we essentially did the equivalent of doing college in one semester to try to be ready to accommodate people.
Stephanie Rosalky: I’m a former classroom teacher who started tutoring. When I got too many clients I opened Wash Park Tutoring in 2012. We have always been a traditional after-school tutoring company. The majority of our employees are professional teachers with classroom experience and expertise. We’ve always done in-person tutoring for K–8, and even now we don’t anticipate moving to an online model. Having someone right next to you to teach you is the best way. Of course, we’re having to change a few things and be flexible with what people need right now.
It seems like parents are really struggling with how to navigate remote learning, which many Denver metro area school districts are doing for the time being. What types of things do parents seem to want from a tutoring company?
Galvin: Starting in July we noticed a huge uptick in interest. Year over year, inquiries were up a whopping 717 percent. Parents are asking for all kinds of things. Some want supplemental education because they think school this fall may be insufficient. In Denver, the most asked about subjects have been science, math, and reading. People seem most worried about math. Some want small group classes for pandemic pods they’re creating with family or neighbors. We do all of this online.
Rosalky: Parents are simply saying, “I need some help here.” They’re worried that their kids got behind in the spring or that remote learning wasn’t pushing their kids. So far our experience has been that families or a few kids from a specific class or neighbors are coming together to do learning pods of three to five kids. Our pods are in-home because that’s what parents have said they want. They want someone there. They may be also doing remote learning with the public school, but our tutors come in and support that curriculum, usually for two to four hours three to four days a week. If public schools are doing three hours of online learning in the morning, our tutors can come in for a few hours in the afternoon.
We’ve heard parents say remote learning might be fine but my kids are done and bored and bugging me by, say, 2 p.m., and I still have three hours of work to do. Do you guys have solutions for that?
Galvin: Yeah. That’s a big issue. Some parents want some socialization for their kids and some just want a few extra hours of peace and quiet. They’ve asked us to provide some enrichment classes that might be done with friends and teach a language or do a book club, something not homework-y. We try to keep them fun and recommend maybe doing an hourlong class a few times a week.
Rosalky: The basis of our business is to customize to our clients’ needs. Whatever it is they need, we’ll make it work. We’ve had families ask to have someone there from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and although that’s rare, we can accommodate it. With families who want a body present, we come up with creative ideas: cooking classes using math, for example.
These sound like great options for families to have, but this raises a couple of issues—one is cost and one is equity.
Galvin: The nice thing about pod learning is that families or neighbor groups can split the cost. Our typical tutoring is $60 per hour. But if you have six kids, it’s $10 an hour. Of course, we know this doesn’t solve the big equity issues of some families not even being able to afford that or some families not having reliable internet or computers. We do offer some free virtual field trips that families can look into.
Rosalky: Our business has tripled in size since the pandemic began. We’ve grown enough to try to offer some discounts, and we are looking into some realistic opportunities to offer scholarships in the future. Equity is definitely on our mind because tutoring usually is an expensive option. Our fees vary by the number of kids in a pod. For example, it’s $20 per kid per hour if there are five kids. It’s $70 per hour for a one-on-one session. I worked with Teach For America so I would like to give back to the education community.
What’s been your biggest takeaway from speaking with parents about this difficult situation?
Galvin: That the world needs really good online education right now. We’re trying to meet parents and kids where they are.
Rosalky: Families feel really lost right now. There’s not enough concrete information for them to plan. School districts are having to shift and make changes every day. Parents just want to be able to know what to do. We’re trying to be flexible to help them.