Karen Graves knew something was wrong with her grandson Corry, but she wasn't sure what it was.
When he was a toddler, she thought he was brilliant. He knew the alphabet when he was 2 years old and could recite all of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes that they read together. But by the end of the first grade, he could barely write his name, said Graves, who is Corry's legal guardian. He would stand in the middle of a room and stare at the ceiling, oblivious to everything around him, his lips quivering.
Three years ago, Graves hired Michelle Davis, a personal education consultant, to discover what she could not.
Davis noticed that Corry walked on his tiptoes, a possible sign of Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. She directed him to doctors, who confirmed the suspicion.
Davis arranged for Corry's Prince George's County elementary school to evaluate him again and enroll him in special education classes. She represented Graves at mediation hearings and attended meetings with school officials to ensure that Corry, who is now 11, received appropriate services.
This summer, Davis helped persuade school officials to pay for Corry to attend a private alternative school in Annapolis.
Graves said securing those services for her grandson would have been impossible without help. She knew nothing about the bureaucracy of the school system, let alone the complexities of special education. With a full-time job as a legal secretary in Washington, she had little time to learn.
"Most parents aren't going to want to sit down and read 2,000 pages about what's going on in education," Graves said. "The advocates are the ones who save the parents all the time and trouble of reading that, because they know it all."
As many parents have less time and more choices to make about schooling, some are turning to personal educational consultants to help them wade through bureaucracy, solve discipline problems, find the right schools for their children or simply to get some advice.
"Even the most highly educated, powerful clients, are like, 'We're clueless,' " Davis said.
What began in the 1970s as a service for wealthy parents seeking to assure their children's entrance to elite prep schools has transformed in the past three decades, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the national Independent Education Consultants Association in Fairfax County.
Now, most of the approximately 400 consultants accredited by the group work with families to help them choose colleges. A growing number lobby for parents who have children with behavioral problems or learning disorders. Others, such as Davis, specialize in helping parents navigate special education.
Public schools, however, sometimes do not look fondly at such third-party mediation. Lyda Astrove, a Rockville parent of two children with disabilities, said parents who hire consultants sometimes end up in a "battle of experts" as school staff and consultants develop conflicting analyses of a student's needs.
Davis said one school principal at first refused to let her speak to the school's staff alone, though he relented. "I think there's a trepidation, there's a hesitation," Davis said. "When that happens, I have to think to myself, 'What's wrong that they don't want me to know?' "
Parents often spend considerable amounts of money for the consultants to find out. A comprehensive session with a consultant can cost thousands of dollars. Georgia Irvin, who runs a consulting service, charges $3,000 for helping students get immediate placement in international or therapeutic schools. Graves said she has paid Davis about $6,000 over the past 31/2 years.
Sklarow said an analysis by the association found that the average family income of members' clients is about $75,000 a year.
Leigh Ann Cahill, an education consultant in McLean not affiliated with the Fairfax group, said she has worked with clients who are poor, students who have attention deficit disorder or dyslexia and girls who have low self-esteem. The time she spends with a family depends on their needs. "A lot of families don't need all the bells and whistles," she said. "They just need a little bit of guidance."
Some, like Michael Lynch, needed more. Lynch had tried every tactic he could think of to motivate his son Conor, but nothing worked. Conor grew distant from his parents during his freshman year at Woodson High School in Fairfax, Lynch said. Soon, he stopped doing homework and brought home a "D" in a film studies class.
"He was sort of stuck in cruise control, and that really bugged us," Lynch said.
Lynch bought his son an ergonomically designed, technologically enhanced desk to help him study. A private tutor came by twice a week, sometimes more.
Yet the more that Lynch harped on his son, the more the boy seemed to withdraw. The nightly arguments about schoolwork were taking a toll on the family. Conor's mother, Maureen, was frustrated and upset, which in turn demoralized Lynch and their younger son.
So Lynch brought Conor to one final expert, personal education consultant Ethna Hopper. She gave them an answer they weren't expecting to hear: As parents, they were doing everything wrong.
Conor needed to be in a small, highly structured school, not a place such as Woodson, which has about 1,900 students. He should have fewer distractions so that he would be able focus on schoolwork, not constantly shuttle between appointments.
Conor transferred to Christ Church School, a private boarding school in secluded Irvington, Va. He became captain of his crew team and graduated in 2001. His parents, too, eventually moved down to Irvington in search of a simpler life. Michael Lynch credits Hopper for helping the family get back on track.
"We had no idea what we were doing," said Maureen Lynch. Hopper "was able to know where he fit into the scheme of things. . . . She said he'll probably be president of his senior class, and we were still like, 'Uh, what are we ever going to do with this kid?' "