It was only six weeks before semester's end and Craig was flunking freshman algebra. His Fairfax County high-school teacher had made it clear she doubted he had a chance for a passing grade. As a last resort, his parents hired a tutor.

By the time report cards came out, he had pulled himself up to a respectable C. "His teacher was amazed," says Craig's mother.

A 16-year-old Fairfax athlete found geometry to be his high hurdle last year. "He had the idea he just couldn't do math," says his mother. His parents also sought the help of a tutor, in this case a husky young former Marine doing graduate work in math at the University of Maryland.

By Semester's end, the student had earned a strong "C." "He even got a couple of 'A's,'" says his mother. But the added benefit is that the tutor "gained the confidence of my son, helped him strengthen his self-image." He's headed for college next fall.

Typically, says Sue Gurland, who heads Traveling Tutors, a private tutoring firm in Silver Spring, the first thing a potential client will say when phoning her office is "'I just got my report card. . . .' There's always a flurry around report-card time."

Or, she says, two weeks before the final exams she'll get a call, "Can you do anything to help?" In such a short time, "we use the Band-Aid approach. We try for immediate successes and then go back to fill in the gaps."

A growing number of students -- or parents -- are seeking the help of tutors, says Garland, and for a variety of reasons (not always because the student can't keep up with the lessons). Some "A" students turn to tutors for more challenging work than they are getting in the regular classroom.

The demand has developed, says Gurland, 35, a former teacher, because, "as I see it, teachers are overwhelmed. With 30 students in the class, they can't always get around to every student."

The demand for tutors also comes at a time when D.C. schools are moving toward ending automatic promotions and instead require students to demonstrate mastery of specific skills before moving on to the next grade.

Probably the bulk of Gurland's clients are experiencing difficulty in math, and to a lesser degree in English.

If a student is "doing poorly in English, history and science, that's the red flag of a reading problem."

Some students simply may not know how to organize their time or how to listen to a lecture. Others may suffer anxiety during exams. These are problems a tutor can target for special help.

In the case of "precocious or curious" pre-schoolers, parents may hire a tutor because they "don't have the time or knowhow to stimulate them."

Gurland suggests that a classwork problem may be solved more easily -- and cheaply -- if the student finds a tutor at the beginning of the year before falling too far behind.

Also important is that parents and students are motivated. "If the student isn't, the child will forget his books or not do the homework." That "sabotages" the effort "and the parents are wasting their money."

Traveling Tutors, which maintains a roster of about 100 part-time tutors, is one of a number of private firms offering individual instruction from pre-school to senior high school in the Washington area. At the same time, many local public-school jurisdictions also provide some form of tutoring at low -- or no -- cost.

Gurland established her firm in 1977 when she was a part-time tutor. "Whenever I went, parents asked, 'Do you know anyone who can help with math?'" She did, friends who were out-of-work teachers. She started with eight tutors and five students. She now has about 150 students.

Gurland's firm charges $15 an hour for private tutoring in the student's home, plus $1 a trip (for gas). All her teachers have bachelor's degrees and half have master's. They include housewives working part-time and engineers "who want to keep contacts with kids."

After an initial evaluation session -- the tutor meets with the family and goes over the student's classwork -- a program of two- or three-times-a-week sessions is set up. FOR MORE INFORMATION . . .

Traveling Tutors, 700 Sligo Ave., Suite 408, Silver Spring, Md. 20910 (565-0035).

For alternatives to private tutoring, school guidance counselors may offer recommendations. Among possibilities:

District of Columbia: A volunteer program enlists the help of other students in tutoring classmates. Adults also sign up. Last year, says C. Vanessa Spinner, coordinator for volunteer services, "We gave certificates to over 2,500 volunteers who worked in the D.C. public schools." c

Fairfax County: Guidance counselors maintain lists of people available for counseling, usually for a fee. The schools will pass information along, says counselor Clinnie Redick of West Springfield High School, but "we tell parents to check carefully."

Honor students may be available to teach classmates for a fee of $2 to $3.50 an hour.

"All of us in counseling," says Redick, "feel the commitment to try and find some way of getting help."

George Mason University: Sponsors a Tutorial Service staffed by university students who teach primarily in the Northern Virginia area.The fee for an undergraduate is $7 and a graduate student may charge for $10 to $12 an hour. Participating George Mason students are screened and recommendations are obtained from their professors, says assistant coordinator Susan O'Mara. For more information: 323-2367.