Hidden inside Wilde Lake Middle School around dinner time each evening is a low-profile program treasured by those who know about it -- a low-cost, one-on-one tutoring service.
Offering help in just about any subject, the nonprofit Youth Enrichment Program Inc. matches tutors with Howard County students ranging from second grade through high school. But the decade-old program has struggled in recent years due to cuts in county donations.
"It's really helping my son stay on top of his classes," said Vielka Best of Columbia, whose son, Ben, is a junior at Hammond High School. "I help him all that I can, but there's a limit to how much I know about some of what he's learning."
The program also offers one of the best deals in the county for individual tutoring, parents say. Private tutoring services commonly charge $25 or more an hour, but Youth Enrichment asks parents to pay just $15 to $50 a month, depending on family income.
"I looked at private companies, but I saw that they were quickly out of my price range," said Ronna Lazarus, who is the guardian of a Howard High School sophomore in the program. "This tutoring seems to be just as good as anything else I've seen. It really improves grades."
At such low prices, most of the tutors are volunteers. The few who are paid earn only the minimum wage, said Lorah Palmer, the program's coordinator.
"We want the program to be accessible to as many students as possible, regardless of how much their parents are making," Palmer said. "What's essential to us is that we help get parents involved in their children's education.
"That's why we require parents to meet with their children's tutors frequently to see what progress is being made," she said.
Nevertheless, Youth Enrichment has struggled to survive in the last couple of years because it has been hit hard by county budget cuts, she said.
The program used to receive $40,000 a year from the county's Department of Citizens Services, but the county subsidy has been reduced to $15,000 this year.
The rest of the program's $29,000 budget this year will come from donations from such charitable groups as the Columbia Foundation and from the small fees charged to parents.
The cutbacks have reduced the number of students the program serves and limited the program to only one site this year. In the past, the program has tutored as many as 100 students during the course of a school year and was conducted at sites in both east and west Columbia.
These days, 21 students come two nights a week for 1 1/2 hours of tutoring. Other pupils are on a waiting list because of the chronic shortage of volunteer tutors, Palmer said.
Monday through Thursday nights, 10 or more tutors frequently can be found huddled with their students in a couple of seventh-grade classrooms at Wilde Lake Middle from 5: 30 to 7 p.m.
Tutors include high school and college students, stay-at-home parents who like to help and others who come by after work.
Tutors and students often hear about the program through word of mouth. For example, some of the tutors -- as well as some donations -- come from the engineering company where Palmer's husband works, RWD Technologies Inc. in Columbia.
During one recent evening, Mookie Golden, a fourth-grader at Stevens Forest Elementary School, munched on Graham crackers and struggled through his math problems while Ben Best, a junior at Hammond, sat in front of him working on chemical equations.
Dipen Patel, a senior at Centen- nial High School, sat behind them and split his time between trying to understand U.S. history and editing a college essay. Patel, who came to America this year from Kenya, says history has been his toughest challenge in school so far.
Others in the classroom worked on subjects ranging from algebra and biology to Spanish and English.
In the classroom next door, Antoine Baker, a seventh-grader at Wilde Lake, read and discussed a poem with his tutor, Howard High School senior Arianna Wu.
"I was interested in teaching, so I decided to try this tutoring to see what it was like," said Wu, 16. "I'm really enjoying it a lot."
Parents and students say the most important part of the program is its effect on students' performance in the classroom. About three-quarters of the students who are tutored show improved grades.
"It really works," said Ray Gibbs, 15, a sophomore at Howard High. With the work he's done this year with his tutor, Alan Schott, Ray said he has improved his grade in English from a "D" to a "B" and maintained passing grades in his other subjects.
"It's worth all of the work coming in here twice a week, because my grades are going up."
Pub Date: 12/18/96