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Competition spurs extra tutoring

Two days a week, Kelly Saco works out with a private fitness coach. Once a week, she takes pointers from a batting coach. She may play as many as three softball games in a Saturday tournament. And she studies late into weeknights for the slew of advanced placement classes she is taking as a senior at Palmetto High School.

"There were times, especially when I was a junior, when I was doing homework until 3 a.m., and I'd ask myself why I was doing all this,'' she said. îîBut the next morning, I'd get up and do it all over again. Now I know it was definitely worth it.''

Saco, 18, has earned an 80 percent ride to Syracuse University, where tuition alone runs $28,820 a year.

It used to be enough to play sports in a park league or star in the high school musical to score a college scholarship -- or a chance at the pros.

A select few would have some extra lessons in a sport, an area of academics, or a particular art form for a kid to really stand out. But now students like Saco have more than one private coach, each narrowly focused on improving a single area of performance.

Saco's private fitness coach helps her strengthen her muscles, brush up on nutrition and stay agile. Her batting coach works on the mechanics of her swing.

"Things have gotten so competitive that you need to do all these things to stand out, to be better,'' said Kelly's mother, Dacyl Saco of Palmetto Bay. "You need to be stronger and faster than the next kid.''

And possibly richer.

Private tutoring can run from $40 a half-hour for private pitching lessons to $95 an hour for a writing coach. Depending on the expertise of the teacher and the need of the student, the tab can run into the thousands during four years of high school.

"It's an investment,'' said Paul Buzzella of Davie, whose 15-year-old son, Brian, is a star baseball player, golfer, pianist and honor student. He gets one-on-one instruction in all of his extracurricular activities.

"When I was growing up, a good player could do well nationally and regionally by just playing high school,'' Paul Buzzella said. "But now raw talent is not enough. If you want to go places, you have to do all this.''

Several factors have fueled this stampede for private instruction. There are more college-age students, and more of them are applying to multiple colleges at the same time. College costs also have grown faster than both inflation and real wages, making the dream of a scholarship more attractive.

Jennifer Cohen of Coral Gables once taught college courses while moonlighting as a tutor for students who needed extra help to keep up. Now she devotes herself full time to tutoring -- but the students have changed.

"They're coming for that extra push in an extremely competitive marketplace,'' she said. îîI'm not seeing as much remedial work.''

Economic uncertainty has prompted middle- and upper-income parents to seek the safety of a brand-name education, too. Because no one knows what the world will be like in 10 years, or even how to prepare for it, said Hara Estroff Marano, an editor at large for Psychology Today, "you tutor the kids and try to stuff as much information in them as possible'' in hope that they will stand out come college application time.

Estroff Marano's book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting ($23.95,

Broadway Books), deals with the pressure put on some kids to get into a top-ranked college. She cautions that îîhothouse parenting,'' including stacking a kid's schedule with supplemental instruction, is counterproductive, even if well intended. Many kids who begin private coaching early burn out before they even graduate from high school, she said.

Miami voice teacher Lois Yavnieli, who began to offer private lessons almost 20 years ago, said her students have always been willing "to work that much harder'' to launch a career in music or theater. But every once in a while, she gets a student who is not particularly motivated but is being pushed by a parent.

"I've had parents who bring them in because they think it's a feather in the child's cap,'' she said. îîIt's a way of making them look good for colleges.''

She counteracts that stress by "not pressuring, just offering a refuge for an hour. This is about the love of the art. It shouldn't be about piling one more thing to your life.''

Many parents say it's their children who ask for the extra help because they want to improve their skills. Kelly Saco, for instance, said her batting lessons, which she started in fourth grade, "made me go from good to great. I wouldn't be where I am now.''

Jody Ellenby, last year's Silver Knight Award winner in drama, is a music performance major at Northwestern University. She started voice lessons at 14 with Yavnieli, when "it began to click that this is what I wanted to do.''

Ellenby, 19, found Yavnieli's instruction so helpful that during spring break, she asked for help with a college audition.

Shouldn't she have gotten this kind of training in school, as part of her regular classes?

"An hour of chorus is not going to teach you an Italian art song,'' Ellenby said. "There are too many other people in one class.''

Private lessons can offer more than just a particular skill. Ellenby said that individualized attention from Yavnieli has taught her focus, persistence, poise and commitment.

Jacqueline J. LoBosco, co-founder of a tutoring center in New York City and author of two books on the SAT, said customized lessons can also help kids learn effective problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that are important throughout life.

In sports, Buzzella said, the one-on-one coaching is about more than learning the game.

His son Brian, a freshman at Western High School, goes twice a week to a pitching coach and once a week to a golf instructor. He also has weekly piano lessons. Buzzella, a former college baseball player, tunes up his batting.

"They're also about life lessons,'' Buzzella said. "If he doesn't become a professional athlete, he will still have the academics and the interests and the work ethic.''