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Tutor program lends helping hand

Tutors on Wheels is the dream of Jasleen Sabharwal, who opened the business in 2004 in a church in Richmond Hill and moved to a storefront on Austin Street in Forest Hills last year to have space to expand her client list as students grow.

Tutors on Wheels currently coaches kindergarten through adult learners, whether the challenge is preparing a child for a school entrance exam or helping people returning to school to study for nursing or accounting exams.

"We're the only agency that caters to adults," Sabharwal said. Sometimes that happens in unexpected ways and calls for skills other than simple drills and homework.

"I had a lady, she was Italian and her husband was Jewish. Their counselor told them they needed to learn each other's languages" to overcome communication difficulties in their relationship, she said.

But the bulk of the clients are children, many of whom are cramming for the state tests in English and math that make up the metric by which the federal No Child Left Behind Act is gauged.

"Maybe the one reason why tutoring agencies are so popular is because students get anxious about the test, and the parents get worried about whether they'll pass," Sabharwal said. "We also do Regents and SAT preparation because college entrance has become so competitive."

Sabharwal understands competition and came to tutoring by an unusual path. She worked on the floors of the mid-to-high 90s in 2 World Trade Center at Fiduciary Trust Company until Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, she like many who survived the attacks on the World Trade Center has preferred to stay closer to ground level.

In the months after the attacks, she left Fiduciary and worked as a paralegal at two law firms, but was unable to shake the feeling that she had left a part of herself at the Twin Towers.

"God spared my body, but I felt my spirit was still in the building," she said, which spurred her to seek a more service-oriented career. Sabharwal said her mother was a teacher, and she herself has a bachelor's in psychology and economics and a master's in English literature, so her dedication to education has a strong foundation.

Many of the students come to the Tutors on Wheels learning center, a bright storefront at 68-60 Austin St., where they work one-on-one to master their subject of choice. But the name of the business derives from the tutors who visit schools or private homes, whether they reach the location by car, bicycle, train or subway.

Sabharwal sought out the Austin Street location after parents and students expressed a need for easy access by public transportation. But it also suited her future needs.

"I noticed storefront is really the best location, and I wanted to get into teaching preschool level," she said. "There's a real need for a preschool for special needs students [in Forest Hills] and we had a waiting list almost as soon as we announced it."

The preschool is awaiting city and state approval and the required certificates, but Sabharwal has set aside a large room to get it started once she gets the green light. If all goes well, she hopes to expand into space on the building's second floor to serve neighborhood children, she said.

About 50 of the clients take lessons at the learning center, another 100 are scattered throughout city schools, and another 50 to 60 ask to be tutored at home, Sabharwal said.

"At the learning center, we start as soon as they can get here, so 3:30 p.m., and we go to 7:30 [p.m.]" Monday through Thursday, Friday until 6 p.m., as well as on weekends, she said. "Saturdays and Mondays are our busiest days."

Tutors on Wheels also has agreements with several nonprofit organizations to work with lower-income or at-risk children, depending on the group's aim.

Sabharwal said one of these partnerships gave rise to the "support a scholar" program where one lucky, deserving student can receive 90 minutes' tutoring per week for free. She sees her business as a way to serve the community and help people better themselves.

"I have the passion to serve. You can't do this without it," Sabharwal said.

Tutors on Wheels is located at 68-60 Austin St. in Forest Hills. It can be reached at 718-268-0092 or -0133 or online at www.tutorsonwheels.com.

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