Editorial: Solving Los Altos’ Tutorial Problem

Tutorial Center tutors are underutilized, while Skills and English 10 classes are understaffed. A new approach is needed to create a community of tutors that can serve the school.


The data above was collected through a survey of 22 Tutorial Center tutors out of 35, where tutors estimated the frequency of their tutoring and picked between options to indicate why they chose to tutor at the Tutorial Center. The Talon extrapolated tutors’ total tutoring hours based on their self-reported frequencies, and compared that data to the total hours they were assigned to tutor. All figures in this article are therefore approximate, because the Tutorial Center could not provide more accurate data.

Sophomore Alex Siesel is your ideal tutor. He has regulars who visit him once a week, sometimes every day. He’s the first to snag new students, and he tutors three days a week at the Tutorial Center with a level of responsibility rivaled by few others.

“I enjoy it,” Alex said. “If there’s anyone who needs help, I’ll make myself welcoming and friendly. If Ms. Nguyen requests for someone to help a student, I’ll usually be the first to volunteer.”

Tutors like Alex show the Tutorial Center’s potential. Yet the rarity of his commitment exemplifies the Tutorial Center’s issues: few tutors tutor, and few students come to get tutored.

“It can be problematic, [because] tutors there don’t end up tutoring that much,” Alex said. “Usually I’m one of two or three tutors tutoring” out of five.

Alex is overestimating, according to data collected from 22 of the Center’s 35 tutors. The average Tutorial Center tutor self-reported actively tutoring only one-third of their scheduled periods. The Tutorial Center has a 33 percent efficiency rate. This semester, 1152 periods were assigned to 22 tutors — approximately 384 of which consisted of actual tutoring.

Even worse, just three of those 22 tutors account for 208, or 54 percent, of tutoring periods. Conversely, the five tutors who do the least tutoring account for just nine tutoring periods.

This data is extrapolated from Tutorial Center tutoring schedules and students’ own perception of how often they tutor. It isn’t completely accurate, but Tutorial Center Coordinator Quyen Nguyen said the Center doesn’t collect data on tutoring hours, or at least will not release those numbers.

Los Altos may pride itself on its communities, such as AVID, Haiti Club, ODFL and more, but it can’t pride itself on its tutoring community.

Still the image the data summons is telling: most tutors spend more time working on homework than tutoring other students. The Center simply does not receive enough students to tutor.

But look into freshman Skills and sophomore English 10 classes, and you’ll find the opposite issue: there are eight tutors to fill seven classes in courses teachers say need five tutors per class.

Tutors provide struggling students with individualized help, and assist teachers with classroom management. But awareness of these classes is low — 92 of 135 seniors surveyed reported they had little to no knowledge of English 10. More, 12 of the 22 Tutorial Center tutors reported they primarily chose the Center because it was the only opportunity they had heard of. Culturally, the Center is the default tutoring service. While the Center’s 35 student tutors sit underutilized, each in-class tutor is expected to help manage 20 students every day.

“It’s a big problem, because the more one-on-one help students can get the better,” World Studies teacher Christa Wemmer said. Wemmer previously taught World Studies Skills, for over a decade. “Not having tutors, it makes a huge impact. The skills classes are set up for students who need a lot of academic support at our school.”

Lack of community sits at the heart of this issue. Los Altos may pride itself on its communities, such as AVID, Haiti Club, ODFL and more, but it can’t pride itself on its tutoring community. That community needs to exist to bridge the gap between the Tutorial Center and Los Altos community and between the Center and in-class tutoring needs.

The Trust Issue
To get tutees, the Tutorial Center relies on teacher referrals and student initiative, factors that are fractured by teachers and students’ lack of faith in the system.

A majority of 38 teachers surveyed reported trust issues with the Tutorial Center: they lacked faith that tutors were qualified, and that referred students would actually go to the Center. It would take work set up structured ways to ensure students attend tutoring sessions. Faith in tutors’ qualifications and effort, however, may take a cultural overhaul.

The lack of faith is understandable — 10 of the 22 tutors surveyed reported choosing to tutor at the Center because it requires a “low commitment level.” Six said that volunteer hours were the primary reason they tutored, over the option “Because I enjoy helping my peers.” When around half of tutors signed up for the Center’s low commitment level, it’s clear there’s a culture of lax expectations.

“I wish the Tutorial Center was a place where students could really get help,” English teacher Carrie Abel Shaffer said. “I think the idea is amazing. Some students who sign up to be tutors really do want to tutor. Others know they can get away with not really doing anything.”

Committed tutors need training, but the Tutorial Center’s training process can be summed up succinctly: tutors are supposed to learn on the job.
Tutors must meet grade requirements for the subjects they’re teaching and fill out a brief application. Then, they sit down with Nguyen, who explains the course and hands them a sheet of tutoring tips. It’s mostly hands-off after that. Nguyen makes sure to instill a focused atmosphere, but “training” is meant to be an iterative process for each tutor.

The Writing Center came to fruition this year in an effort to provide what the Tutorial Center could not: thoroughly trained and vetted tutors.

The process can’t inspire much faith in teachers. Tutoring for all subjects requires more than a passing grade — tutors need to build relationships to create lasting impacts on their tutees. The necessary skills take time and commitment to develop.

“How do you package feedback so a person doesn’t get demotivated? How do you hold high expectations but choose appropriate challenges?” Survey Skills teacher Alicia Triana said. “Like 50 percent of the battle is, ‘Does this person believe in me and think I can do well at this, even if I’m not doing well now?’ I’m not sure we stress that enough with tutors.”

It’s understandable Skills and English 10 classes have few resources to devote toward training, but tutors should also receive more training to work more effectively with large groups of students.

It’s for these reasons Alex focuses on decreasing the barriers he knows students face when accessing the Tutorial Center. He knows he needs to work to make them feel comfortable in the Center’s environment.

“I try to act friendly even if I’m not tutoring so someone might come,” Alex said. “I try to act human, instead of just saying ‘I’m only here to teach you math and improve your grade.’ I think it helps them feel comfortable, because it kind of closes the academic/social gap, if we can create a connection.”

The Writing Center Model
So the Tutorial Center faces a dilemma: how should it find more students to tutor if tutors aren’t trusted? Expectations need dramatic revisions, and the newly proposed Writing Center lends key ideas.

The Writing Center came to fruition this year in an effort to provide what the Tutorial Center could not: thoroughly trained and vetted tutors. The goal is to create a community of tutors through demanding commitment akin to that of Broken Box or ASB.

For the Tutorial Center, establishing weeks-long training periods and competitive applications is a brave but necessary step toward a stronger tutoring culture. Acquiring tutors who are willing and able to work shouldn’t be a high bar to reach. With tutors who take pride in their work — instead of shying away from it — students and teachers can hold faith in the quality of Tutorial Center tutoring.

And a smaller initial group of tutors is also necessary to fight complacency — the Center only needs around 15 tutors, not the 35 it has now. More, requiring commitment would increase the amount of tutors over time — students currently don’t tutor because tutoring doesn’t present itself as a priority. Out of 102 seniors surveyed, 47 said they would be likely or very likely to tutor, and 53 cited prioritizing other commitments as a main reason they do not tutor. Evidence points to an increase in tutors if tutoring rivaled sports and clubs for priority.

The Tutorial Center also needs to take responsibility for all tutoring on campus so Skills, English 10 and AVID don’t need to search for tutors on a year-by-year basis. Staff dedicated to on-campus tutoring should manage the process from finding to maintaining tutors.

But the Writing Center and Tutorial Center should not coexist independently. It makes little sense to create a Writing Center while the Tutorial Center lies underutilized, and little sense to reform the Tutorial Center and implement a Writing Center. Five years from now, Los Altos’ vision needs to be for one, centralized tutoring service.

To become a sustainable, reform-minded campus tutoring service, the Tutorial Center needs a stronger accountability system that allows teachers to enforce tutoring sessions and coordinate between itself and other on-campus tutoring opportunities to re-allocate tutors. Most of all, it needs to reform its culture and assume responsibility as the Tutorial Center.