THESE DAYS, Loyola College's graduate center in Timonium has the look of the last day of summer camp.
Parents wait patiently. Younger brothers and sisters, not quite old enough for camp, play with their toys. A couple of pet dogs loll about. A new group of campers begins to arrive for the next session.
But this isn't a camp. It's a reading clinic. The teachers, called "clinicians," are Loyola graduate students in the last phase of study for a master's degree. The students, ranging in age from 5 to 14, get just under an hour of one-on-one tutoring four days a week for five weeks.
In an era of $50-an-hour tutors, that's nearly 20 hours of instruction for $175. No wonder Loyola fills 70 slots by word of mouth. No wonder many of the kids are there for enrichment, not remediation.
The educators call it a "practicum." It's the equivalent of student teaching at the undergraduate level, but graduate students don't need student teaching. They've already done it. Most are working teachers, some with many years of experience.
"It's a real luxury," says Debbie Wilkins, a first-grade teacher at Carroll Manor Elementary in Baltimore County who tutors in two of the three daily sessions at the clinic. "When we start out, I have two kids who don't know me, and I don't know them. But in a few short weeks I'm able to know them as if they'd been in my class all year long."
Wilkins says even the most able teachers seldom get a chance to work one-on-one with children for any length of time. "There are just too many distractions, too many things to do when you have 26 kids, as I did last year."
In one of the Loyola center's classrooms, she's working on short vowels with Taylor Esser, a 7-year-old who will enter the second grade this fall at Immaculate Conception School in Towson.
Taylor's mother, Judy Esser, says her son is in the clinic because he's been having problems with reading at school. Each evening, she and Taylor do the homework assigned by Wilkins. Taylor's mother estimates he's made three months of progress in the first two weeks of the clinic.
Most of the parents and most of the clinicians are women. One exception is Michael Adams, whose night job at Baltimore-Washington International Airport allows him to accompany his daughter Kirsten, 5, to the clinic.
Kirsten is one of those kids born late in the calendar year who is developmentally behind the other children in her class at St. Rose of Lima School in Brooklyn, where she will be entering the first grade. "I know she's smart," says Adams. "She can't read yet, but she can change my screen saver."
Adams looked around for tutoring before he applied to the Loyola clinic. Profit-making tutoring firms charge $150 to $200 just to evaluate children, he found, and rates run $50 an hour or more.
Caitlin Goodrich, 8, commutes with her mother from Millersville in Anne Arundel County for her session with clinician Kitty Young, a former Harford County teacher earning a master's while she runs her own tutoring business.
Young is helping Caitlin, a third-grader at Shipley's Choice Elementary School, compose a true story about the family dog. Grasping her pencil as though it were her most valuable possession, the left-hander writes, "She was very hyper and always getting into stuff." Then she reads it back to Young and me.
"Do you think you could find a better word than 'stuff'?" Young asks.
Caitlin thinks a few seconds and then says, "Mischief?" It is the perfect word.
While their kids get tutoring, the waiting parents each Wednesday can attend a workshop conducted by Robert Peters, director of Loyola's reading programs. A dozen of them, some with youngsters in tow, crowd into a conference room to hear Peters discuss the latest in reading research, the value of phonics, how to teach reading at home and the relationship of reading and writing.
"Writing can be a lot safer for kids in school and at home," says Peters, "because there's a sense of ownership about it. Reading doesn't have that quality. A lot more kids feel more comfortable with adults when they're writing than when they're reading."
Good point, I think as I head back to the office. I also think what a world it would be if all children had individual reading tutors 50 minutes a day. But that is a luxury beyond imagining.