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A Tough-Love Approach to Tutoring

Angeles Echols applies a no-nonsense policy to the 238 children she and her staff instruct at night school in Koreatown. Good grades bring cash rewards and poor work requires harder effort.


The clock is approaching 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and all over Los Angeles kids are plopping in front of televisions or gabbing on the phone.

Angeles Echols has another idea. She's squeezing every last bit of homework out of her "kids" before calling it a night.

Echols holds the hand of one exhausted boy as he diagrams sentences on a drill sheet. She double-checks another student's spelling test and offers a hearty smile for the A-minus at the top of the page. "Thank you, my friend," she says.

Then she turns to a teenager who has finished his homework and is sitting idle.

"You need to read 30 more minutes," Echols demands before offering a carrot. "I'll give you 50 cents."

Inside a drab office building in the middle of Koreatown, the former actress and private school teacher runs a tutoring program that falls somewhere between intensive study hall and education boot camp.

Students are required to finish not only their homework, but also equally demanding assignments handed out by Echols and her staff. Before students can even join, their parents must pass an interview, agreeing to help their children at home.

"I'm here to let the kids know that they can do it," said Echols, 43, who charges as little as 10 cents an hour for her services.

Echols' students--all 238 of them--come from as far away as Diamond Bar and San Dimas to study in the office suites she has converted into classrooms. They are mostly African American, but include a smattering of others, both rich and poor.

Echols' program, known as Educating Young Minds, stays open until 9 p.m. or later on weeknights, well past other after-school programs that shut their doors around dinner time. Students arrive in shifts, with the youngest coming and going first and older students coming later.

While other tutors offer assistance in the basics--reading and math--Echols and her eclectic staff teach just about anything their students are studying in school: from social studies and French to biology and calculus. Saturdays are devoted to preparing for college entrance exams.

Echols, who grew up in an impoverished home in Tennessee but graduated from Cornell University, calls achievement her top priority. She hands out $25 to students who get A's and Bs on their report cards. Straight A's bring $50. Last year, Echols said, she awarded $450 in one grading period.

On top of the incentives, Echols gives scholarships to college-bound seniors. She said she doled out $26,000 in assistance to students for this school year. Funding for the scholarships and other costs in her $195,000 budget comes primarily from private foundations.

The atmosphere at her center is no-nonsense.

On a recent evening, a group of 5- and 6-year-olds practiced reading around a small table in one room, each taking a turn without a single disruption. Across the hallway, a teenager polished off a vocabulary test--the same one he took in school that day--to make sure he understood all the words.

Meanwhile, two teenagers sitting at desks pored over maps of Asia and Europe, listing the names of seven countries and capitals on each continent. Eighth-grader Cathy Nicholas was among the students searching through the atlases. "I want to get a great education," said Cathy, who lives about 10 miles away in the Baldwin Hills area and attends the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school. "I'll do whatever I can to get into a great college."

Cathy and other students said they welcomed their evenings at the Koreatown tutoring center and their time with Echols, whose work combines equal amounts of love and discipline.

Echols' style was on display during a recent night as she greeted a 3-year-old boy who was visiting with older siblings.

"Yo, young man, whassup?" she asked as she gave the boy a bear hug and a big smooch on the head.

Echols' stern side surfaced later as a group of boys chased each other near the front door. She pivoted in her seat in the middle of the office and yelled.

"If you do that again, I'm going to beat you up," she said, half joking. "On the count of three, everybody takes a seat. One, two, three." The boys scurried to chairs and kept quiet.

Echols' harder side jolts some students when they arrive for the first time. Eleven-year-old Joshua Wallace said he was intimidated during his initial visit in March. He had good reason. Echols got in his face over his poor performance in school and because he was giving his parents a hard time at home.

"She said, 'Stop getting those punk grades,' " the sixth-grader recalled. "I stood there and looked at her and cried."

Since that time, Joshua and his twin brother, Jason, have been coming from Diamond Bar three times a week. Their mother, Sheila, shuttles them back and forth, and says the 45-minute commute each way is well worth the time.

"They needed that extra encouragement that they weren't receiving [in school]," said Wallace, who, like other parents, heard about Echols by word of mouth. "It's that sternness I think my kids needed."

Echols started her tutoring program 13 years ago with just two students in a one-room apartment not far from the Koreatown center. At that time, her home was so small that students would take pillows off her bed and sit on them in her bathtub to study.

Since then, Echols has hired 21 teachers, who are paid modest sums and mostly maintain day jobs. The roster includes seven teachers by profession, a medical student, a stockbroker and a legal assistant.

The operation is still modest. The office space is too small to accommodate all of the nearly 200 students on Echols' waiting list. But she is intent on serving as many as possible.

"They don't leave until the work is gone," Echols said. "We may call a parent and say, 'You need to bring dinner.' "

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