Episcopal City Tutoring tells a "story of abundance"

For high school students planning to attend college, SAT performance can be a major obstacle.  Preparatory courses can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. These classes, which have become the norm in affluent school districts, are often financially out of reach for low-income students. For those kids, the SAT—already intimidating—can start to feel truly daunting. 

Episcopal City Tutoring (ECT) has found its niche in the intersection between low-income students who need test preparation and financially wealthier communities that are able to pay market rates for quality tutoring. ECT provides one-on-one tutoring to high school students preparing for the SAT.  These classes are offered at competitive rates, and the profits are used to bring the same high-quality tutoring to high school students in struggling schools. Currently, ECT offers paid tutoring in Hamilton, Milton and Cohasset, and provides free tutoring in Dorchester.  

A 10-week course at the Hamilton ECT locations costs $850, a highly competitive rate for one-on-one tutoring.  (For reference, 18 hours of private instruction at Boston-based Veritas Prep rings in at nearly $3,000).  

The Rev. Eric Hillegas, now the rector of St. Chrysostom’s Church in Quincy, first got the idea for free or low-cost SAT tutoring while he was serving as an assistant priest at St. Mary’s Church in Dorchester.  The nearby Jeremiah Burke High School was unable to provide the preparation that students pursuing higher education needed. 

“Burke High School has struggled academically, and not had the resources to allow students to perform well on standardized tests that are required for higher education in our system,” Hillegas said. 

Hillegas began talking to Kali Reynolds, an educator at Christ Church in Hamilton, and Episcopal City Tutoring began to click into place. 

“Because of some work that my wife, Kendyll, has done as a tutor, I knew about the industry and the market and how lucrative SAT tutoring was in affluent communities,” Hillegas said. He realized that the profits from tutoring in communities like Hamilton could provide the funding for free tutoring for students from St. Mary’s and the Jeremiah Burke High School.  

“A lot of kids at Burke High School don’t speak English as a first language, so they really struggle with the verbal section of the SAT,” said ECT spokesperson Catherine Troutman. “These are the kids that need the most support."

Although there is much debate about the efficacy of standardized testing, Hillegas said that educators need to be practical: students who want to attend college must be prepared to take the SATs.

“ECT grew out of a practical realization that these tests are a gateway to higher education,” he said, “and we wanted to give [students] every resource we could to succeed on these tests.” 

Episcopal City Tutoring received a grant from Episcopal City Mission in 2009 to conduct a feasibility study ($5,000), and a second grant in 2010 to launch the first site ($2,500). In 2012 , ECT received $5,000 through Episcopal City Mission’s Parish Enterprise Competition, with additional incentives tied to the launch of the newer parish-based tutoring centers in Milton and Cohasset ($2,500 each). 

For Hillegas, enabling affluent communities to share their financial abundance with city neighborhoods is a mission rooted in the history of the early church. 

“In the first century, when St. Paul was traveling around the ancient Mediterranean, in all these affluent communities like Phillipi and Corinth, one of the primary things he was doing was gathering money for the church in Jerusalem,” Hillegas said. “We’re doing the same thing but we have a different resource, in that we have access to this capital market.” 

Hillegas is excited about this innovative model of using a competitive market for social good. 

“Financial profits can be used to do all sorts of selfish things, but they can also be used to do some really transformative things,” he said. “As a church it’s not always clear how we can use the market, how we can engage. But there are different ways to speak truth to power, and I’m excited and hopeful that the church will find ways to tell that story of abundance as active participants in the economy.”

Costly SAT prep courses are beyond the budget of many families living in urban neighborhoods like Dorchester.  “A lot of people who are born into poverty don’t have those financial resources, often these kids can’t even afford lunch,” Troutman said. “But if kids don’t take the SAT, they’re not able to get into college, and a lot of times that cycle of poverty continues.”  

The culture of test prep (and the anxiety surrounding it, Hillegas pointed out) is mainly a phenomenon in financially wealthy communities, so bringing the classes directly to less-advantaged neighborhoods is crucial.  Going directly to the neighborhoods where students live is essential to breaking down cultural and geographic barriers. 

“The trick was to figure out how we could bring these resources to Dorchester, where [tutoring] is not a cultural expectation for students and families,” Hillegas said. 

Until recently, ECT’s free SAT prep classes were held at St. Mary’s Church in Dorchester. In February, they moved to the Epiphany School, an Episcopal independent middle school. Hillegas said that both the location and resources will be advantageous to the program. 

“They’re very well situated to help us grow,” Hillegas said of the school. St. Mary’s will continue to be a partner of ECT. 

“One-for-one” giving has become a popular model, seen in companies like TOMS Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold.  The simple, tangible story of ECT is resonating with students and parents alike.  “When we go into a tutoring market, we’re charging about half of what many of these major tutors are charging, and we’re still able to get two students tutored for the price of one,” Hillegas said.

“Families tell us that they love our curriculum and they love our mission. Religious or not, they love our mission. Money is a language that talks in our culture, and I love that we’re able to use it to tell a story of abundance. “ 

Episcopal City Tutoring sessions run for 10 weeks , and registration information is always available by contacting ECT through their Web site. Tutoring is currently offered in Hamilton, Milton, Cohasset, Chestnut Hill (at business affiliate Alison Cook Tutoring) and at Epiphany School in Dorchester. Visit www.episcopalcitytutoring.org to learn more. 

--Ellen Stuart