MONROE, CT — Tutoring, college entry exams and navigating financial aid programs can be a source of anxiety for families, especially in a time of remote learning.
The Monroe Sun interviewed Monroe native, Debbie Malewicki, who owns USA Tutors, which provides K to 12 and college tutoring, along with expert guidance on ESL, financial aid and the college admissions process.
Malewicki has over 30 years of experience in the industry. Prior to owning her business, she was director of the Center for Learning Resources at the University of New Haven for over nine years, where she won their 2012 Excellence in Student and Faculty Support Award. In 2016, Malewicki’s department won one of the top two national industry awards, the Tutoring Program of Excellence Award by the Association for Tutoring Professionals, now called the Association for Coaching and Tutoring Professionals, for excellence in strategies and outcomes.
Malewicki has deep roots in the community. A fifth-generation resident, she graduated from Masuk High School in 1989. Her son is a fourth grader at Stepney Elementary School.
Malewicki’s family values education. Her mother, Terry Malewicki-Greene, was the original owner and operator of Magic Kingdom Nursery School and later taught kindergarten at Stepney and her father, Joe, is a former Teacher of the Year for the Trumbull Public Schools.
When did you first get into tutoring and what do you like most about it?
Malewicki: I started helping friends as a college freshman. Word must have spread because the director of the new Writing Center recruited me the next semester. I’ve worked in the tutoring field in some form since 1990. I most enjoy helping people in ways that create independence and confidence in the learning process.
A successful tutoring session is not one in which a student leaves having correctly answered questions on a homework assignment. Instead, we focus on the concepts and processes involved so that the student understands how the material works, when to apply it, and why it’s meaningful. We are successful if the student can pass a test on the subject and apply it to their studies without our tutor.
The college admissions cheating scandal was in the news recently, when celebrities and business executives inflated entrance scores and bribed college officials to get their children into the schools of their choice. Did anyone ever ask you to cheat for them or their child?
Malewicki: Actually, our first potential client asked us to write his college application essay for him. Over time we’ve added a policies section to our intake form so students/parents verify that they understand that we will never engage in unethical practices.
They still make requests occasionally, but as my team is comprised of veteran educators with strong ethics it’s promptly reported to me along with how the tutor/consultant redirected the session or why they ended it.
What are the backgrounds of the tutors who work for USA Tutors?
Malewicki: Our staff consists of active or recently retired educators and Education-based professionals. Our K to 12 tutors are certified public school teachers, many with additional accreditations as reading or math specialists, in TESOL, and/or in special education.
Our college tutors are experienced classroom instructors with advanced degrees from competitive schools. Our ESL instructors are certified and often have lived in a culture where they weren’t a native speaker. Everyone is committed to providing quality support for our clients on a level and at a pace that works for the student.
Recent changes were made to the SAT test. How does that impact the college admissions process?
Malewicki: One of the biggest impacts, in my professional opinion, will be a much stronger emphasis on college placement exams. They’re already common practice in community colleges and state schools as well as many private institutions.
However, high school transcripts alone don’t tell the whole story, and schools want a clear indication of students’ working knowledge as they enter the institution.
College placement exams are one of the most important first steps in a student’s journey, but one study showed that 75 percent of students and the majority of their parents failed to understand their importance and that scoring lower on them could override AP grades and result in the student retaking a course or even two, needing to extend a program by delaying entrance into classes for the major, cost more in tuition, and potentially result in a later graduation date.
The AP credits will always count, but may be applied as electives. There are ways to avoid these common outcomes with preparation and sufficient time.
Is tutoring just for wealthy families?
Malewicki: Most private tutoring companies range from $80 per hour and up for academic tutoring to $350 per hour for focused exam preparation. One of our competitors starts at $115 per hour to work with an undergraduate who may be an A student at a top-tier school but is still early in learning about the field they’re supporting.
By contrast, some online services only charge $20-$27 per hour, but the expertise of the tutors ranges from low to exceptional, and often the company will pack as many students into the session as possible, which limits how much time the tutor can spend on your student’s needs.
When I began Integrity 1st Learning Support Solutions, and recently reopened under USA Tutors, I committed to three goals:
- Services most families in our community can afford
- Fair payment to our staff
- Integrity/Transparency in all of our interactions
Our website openly lists our costs, all discount options, and our pay rates. The maximum a client will pay is $55 per hour to work with a Ph.D. with several years of university teaching experience in the discipline, many of whom are from Ivy League/top tier schools.
You commit upfront to a private or a small group session. If it’s the latter, the rate drops considerably. Our tutor earns about two-thirds of the payment in a private session and sees a pay increase with each additional student.
We offer reduced rates for shared sessions and/or pre-purchased hours. Family members can share packages for our services.
When one of your tutors does group tutoring sessions online, how many participants are in the group?
Malewicki: We cap at four students to keep the session personalized and engaging. We want the tutor to read the facial expression and body language and know when a client is lost so they can respond immediately.
How do you pair a student up with the right tutor?
Malewicki: I spend substantial time talking with the student and often the parent(s). I discover the student’s learning style and any challenges, what’s not worked for them, and their goals. Then I pair them with a tutor I believe offers a complementary personality and background.
I know who on my team has helped four of his kids through high school and college physics, whose child went through the special ed. system, who’s a Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. from MIT, and who’s run an NIH Institute and is great for serious science students.
What happens if a student is unhappy with the tutor?
Malewicki: Something I love about running a “boutique” tutoring service is we can easily make adjustments. Pairing a student and tutor/consultant is more of an art than a science, so we have a policy that a client/family always may ask for someone else. I’ll determine what didn’t work and then locate someone who’s a better fit.
Thus far, on the few occasions a student has taken us up on that offer, the second tutor has been a great match. There should never be hesitation or guilt in saying that someone’s teaching style isn’t the right fit for you/your child in a tutoring scenario, and our tutors don’t take it personally when we transfer a student.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business?
Malewicki: It caused us to reinvent ourselves. Moving from Integrity 1st Learning Support Solutions to USA Tutors was partly about a shorter and clearer name, but ultimately it reflects a new business format.
Our original model was solely in-person testing, training, and tutoring services out of our New Haven office. USA Tutors doesn’t offer testing or training services. Our tutoring is solely online and includes K to 12.
If you could give parents one piece of advice on preparing their children for college, what would it be?
Malewicki: Talk with experts who can help you understand a multi-step and sometimes confusing process and your options. There are choices, but you need to know they exist, understand the conditions, and consider long-term questions such as ability to pay tuition costs/loans in relation to potential earnings from a field, whether or not transferring schools should be part of your college plan, and what kind of school is the right fit for the student.
One of our most important services is financial aid guidance that includes completing the FAFSA in a way that optimally benefits your family, understanding the fine print on financial aid/scholarship/grant offers, and weighing competing financial aid offers to recognize long-term obligations. Many students, and sometimes their families, end up feeling trapped and desperate from commitments they didn’t fully understand or when their college plans go awry.
Our College Prep. team consists of experts who have worked as an Admissions director, Financial Aid counselor, faculty who review applications and college placement exams, and myself as a Learning Center director who helps students catch up in classes or move ahead. We want our decades of insider experience to help your family ahead of time because we care.