Educator and father of three from Chicago’s North Shore, Matthew Pietrafetta remembers clearly his first day of high school English. When his teacher opened the class by reading from the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — in Middle English, no less — Pietrafetta knew he had found an academic coach.
“I wanted to learn what he knew and understand how he acquired his knowledge. Meeting a mentor — an academic coach — on my first day of high school was so formative for me,” says Pietrafetta, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in English Literature from Columbia University before founding Academic Approach, an academic tutoring and test preparation company.
Pietrafetta says most adults can name a mentor or two who had a profound influence on their educational experiences and life choices. Often, this was a teacher who served as both an academic coach and a role model but — perhaps most importantly — was NOT their parent.
“I often joke that if adolescents listened to their parents consistently, I wouldn’t have a job,” he says. “What’s great about my role, and the role of our tutors at Academic Approach, is that we are respected adults who offer a safe space for students to learn without judgment. There are no bad questions or gaps in knowledge to be ashamed of.”
Unlike parents or teachers, tutors can’t discipline students by grounding them or giving them failing grades. “We are safe but authoritative figures, and that means a lot to a student,” Pietrafetta says, adding that he relies on other coaches to provide this sort of neutral support to his own children.
“When new content or strategies come from a mentor other than a parent, students often feel more receptive,” he says, “So I rely on other mentors to challenge my own children and develop them to reach their fullest potential.”
How an academic coach differs from a test-prep tutor
When families are looking to support their children for the best academic and standardized testing outcomes, success lies in more than just cramming to boost a score.
“It’s easy to stereotype test prep as just teaching tips and tricks, but there’s a lot more at stake,” Pietrafetta explains. “A good tutoring program considers holistically what skills are needed for the student’s success, and then builds a comprehensive program to help the student raise admissions scores as well as develop lasting academic skills.”
That’s why Academic Approach’s intake process includes an initial assessment, a meeting with the family to learn their objectives and a personalized instructional plan. “The design process is essential; we offer it as complimentary, so families can see the sorts of personalized solutions we can author,” he says. “When we thoroughly identify the core academic skills we need to strengthen, we can provide a tutorial that positively impacts both test scores and classroom performance.”
This holistic approach is even more important now. “Post-COVID, with extended remote and hybrid learning kids experienced, we are finding gaps in learning that not only affect test scores but also long-term academic performance,” says Pietrafetta.
With 20 years of success in academic tutoring and test prep, Academic Approach was born from Pietrafetta’s recognition that the skills students need to master for optimal test performance are directly related to the skills they need to master to be prepared for the level of work that will be expected of them in college.
Gaining transferable skills
By developing a strong relationship with an academic coach at Academic Approach, students gain the extra support they need to truly learn the core academic concepts at a stage when they are open and available to learn.
“In the middle school and high school years, students are open to self-reflection and are malleable; they can develop new skills rapidly,” Pietrafetta says. This means that, with the right support, students who lack confidence in learning math, for instance, can work with a tutor who is skilled in leveraging that student’s individual learning traits and build off of those traits to help contextualize math and develop the student’s self-confidence, even in a non-preferred subject.
“The student who is stronger in English than in math or science may need to leverage reading strategies to view the concepts in a more familiar, comfortable way,” he says. “We direct students away from self-stereotypes and emphasize a dynamic growth model believing that all students can grow skills if we appeal to the individual student is as a unique critical thinker.”
Success comes from Academic Approach’s award-winning individualized design.
“By personalizing each student’s learning plan, we understand the child and provide personalized insight on what the child needs as an individual and not as an average member of a class,” he explains. “We build this knowledge, develop a plan and match the student to a mentor who will help bring out the best in that student.”
It’s also an important added benefit that students — as they undertake the program week to week — gain organizational and problem-solving skills modeled by their academic coach.
“Our job at Academic Approach is both to teach the academic skills and to model the organizational skills that empower students to become effective, independent learners, basically becoming their own tutors in time,” Pietrafetta says. “Our goal is that when students approach unfamiliar problems independently, they have not only the necessary problem-solving skills but also the self-confidence to deal with the unfamiliar and master it; they learn that they can problem solve confidently and consistently as they take on more and more rigorous challenges ahead of them.”
Help your child succeed. Schedule a complimentary assessment with the experts at Academic Approach in Chicago’s Lincoln Park or suburban Highland Park, Winnetka and Clarendon Hills. Learn more at academicapproach.com.