Parents are spending $70,000 for their kids to learn in ‘pods’

Doree Lewak Aug 20 2020, 7:57 PM

A college tuition bill.

Now that most NYC-area schools have released their plans for the upcoming school year, with a combination of remote and in-person learning, parents of elite students are scrambling to supplement what they believe will inevitably be lost if students aren’t in the classroom — by hiring private educators.

Known as “pods,” small groups of four to 10 students in the same grade led by a tutor or teacher, have become the solution for weary and wealthy parents who are paying thousands of dollars — on top of five-figure private school tuitions — for the extra help monitoring kids during their school’s remote learning schedule.

Christopher Rim, founder of the education and college consulting firm Command Education, has been inundated with calls from “desperate parents” demanding leaders for pods that they’ve created with other families. He’s already staffed four pods in the Hamptons with tutors and expects to close in on 10 by the time the school year begins, with kids expected to rotate learning at a different home each week. One Water Mill parent already volunteered her 13-bedroom manse as the permanent home base of her kid’s 11th-grade four-person learning pod. He charges $3,500 a week per student, but offers a flat rate of $70,000 per kid if you pay the whole year up front, which covers 30 weeks of school.

“These days, nothing is off the table. It’s about your child not falling behind,” Rim told The Post of parents’ decision to pod. “There’s nothing too expensive in terms of education for their child.”

Rim, a 25-year-old Yale grad with a BA in psychology who started the company in 2015 out of his dorm room, trains his tutors, who are all Ivy-league educated and under 30 years old. Some have teaching degrees and are certified to teach in public schools but not all. Said Rim, “This is not a replacement for school. This is not an accredited program. This is a supplement to make sure the students are on track.” All his tutors will be tested for COVID weekly, and will follow CDC guidelines for social-distancing whenever possible.

Sara, a mom from the Upper East Side who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons, decided to hire Rim to staff a pod for her Trinity School middle schooler and pals. “It’s a really critical time,” she said. “Elementary school is one thing, but middle school going into high school is intense.”

She admitted feeling “sticker shock” about the $35,000 cost for the fall semester pod. “I already invested $50,000 in tuition [for school], but I think this is worth it,” she said. “It’s an investment in my child.” And it takes the pressure off her to keep up with home-schooling while she works full time in finance: “I don’t have time to police my child.”

“It’s a big chunk of money, but we committed,” said Stephanie, an Upper East Side mom of two high schoolers, who’s shelling out $35,000 for each kid for a pod this fall semester in addition to the $55,000 she pays for them to go to Columbia Grammar & Prep. “It was just a s – – tshow in the spring,” she said. “I wanted consistency and I thought the pod would be the best thing.” But the mom, who works in finance and is currently living in Sagaponack, insisted she’s aware that their situation is unique.

“I feel bad. I read the news about these poor kids in Mississippi whose idea of PPE is a shower curtain. It widens the idea of the haves and the have-nots,” she said. “We’re lucky and super-fortunate that we can do this for our kids so they don’t fall behind next year.”

Her older child, a rising junior studying physics and trigonometry, is growing anxious about college and feeling extra pressure to perform without in-person learning. “It’s just part of going to a private school in NYC — the goal is to get to a top 10 school, with a Duke, Michigan or UVA in there somewhere,” said Stephanie of the fierce college admissions process. “If you get a B or two B’s, good luck getting out of that hole. We’re just making sure they’re trying to stay the course.”

She also underscores that by hiring tutors, she’s paying for skills she doesn’t have herself. “I don’t want to seem dense to the fact that what we’re doing for them is extremely privileged, but I don’t have the time nor the capabilities to sit and review an English paper or help with college essays,” she says. “It’s beyond my skill set.”

Even public school families who fear DOE disarray are plotting to pod. “After the UFT [United Federation of Teachers] said they’re going on strike, my phone blew up,” said Frances Kweller of Kweller Prep in Forest Hills. “Many parents don’t trust how the DOE will operate, so they want a concrete program that will give them specific learning goals and objectives.”

Kweller plans to run her own pods of four to six kids each for about $750 per kid per month — two hours per day, four days a week — from third through eighth grade. She said her prospective clients are mostly coming from the magnet schools and kids in the gifted-and-talented programs in public schools.

But regardless of where their kids go to school, there’s a common thread among parents when it comes to going public about their decision to pod: They’re keeping it quiet.

Stephanie, for one, declined to provide her last name for this story and says she’s not telling the school about the tutoring: “I just feel like they’ll just think we don’t have faith in them.”

It’s also a matter of pride. Parents aren’t broadcasting the fact that they’re spending $70,000 a year on top of the $50,000 private school tuition to friends, Rim said, because “They don’t want other parents to gossip about them, that their kid needs a tutor in order to survive the school year.”

The idea is to avoid looking “super-spoiled,” he said. “Hiring a tutor is one thing, but hiring essentially a full-time tutor is another level of luxury. Thirty hours of tutoring a week (multiplied by the semester or year) is seen as the ultimate act of luxury.”

Stephanie admitted the wealthy NYC “bubble” she lives in is foreign to most people, including her family back in Florida, who don’t know she plans to spend $70,000 on the pod.

“I’m not telling my family we’re doing this. They already balk at what we pay for private school.”

This article appeared in the New York Post on Aug 20, 2020