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Leona Mackler has parlayed a lifetime of education and experience into a lucrative practice helping the children of St. Louis' elite achieve their (and their parents') dreams


For centuries, children of wealth learned about the world from kindly private tutors who, soon realizing their pupils' individual gifts and dreads, tactfully adjusted the parents' expectations to match.

Today, Mackler & Associates provides the same service.

It is, by definition, an elitist endeavor — tutoring and counseling the progeny of St. Louis' best families, "sophisticating their skills," networking and strategizing to make sure they're accepted by the right schools. The typical customized plan costs $5,000 minimum, paid up-front, no installments. Names of Civic Progress members lace the parent-endorsement list. You walk into the Olive and Mason office suite prepared for Brooks Bros. tailoring and Masterpiece Theatre inflections.

You find a booming-voiced woman in beige slacks, short-sleeved beige print blouse hanging above them, hair short and indifferently styled. The only color comes from her lipstick, obviously a concession, and her words — which make no concessions whatsoever.

Leona Mackler won't accept any student she thinks she can't help. "Bad press can kill you," she explains. "And I don't want to waste their time. I'll see this kid as he's driving up in his Porsche and know he isn't going to do a damn thing. He's been too many places, hasn't gotten it done. The parents will be saying, "Isn't Dr. Mackler wonderful?' and the kid's looking at me and I'm looking at him" — she bends over, chin on hands, staring straight ahead with glinting eyes — "and he's laughing."

She won't take him, any more than she'll take parents' bribe money. "I've had parents put down blank checks and say, "Write one for Stanford.' I've had them add a zero. Or they'll walk in and say, "He will go to Harvard.' And I'll say, "No. This kid can't handle pressure.' Or he doesn't have the skills. Or it's not his goal, so what's the point? I will not buy into this crap of, "He must go to Harvard.'"

She's catapulted many kids into the schools of their (or their parents') dreams. But she's also gotten several transferred from elite private schools to larger, less ruthless public schools, or headed down a career track their parents never contemplated. "There's a little ego-massaging, but we get through it," she shrugs. "The kids are the clients."

Asim Raza, for example, is now a lawyer for the St. Louis branch of a large Chicago firm. The earth has not opened to swallow him. But back in high school — despite his frank hatred of biology and chemistry — his parents were determined that he would become a doctor. He was reluctantly moving in that direction, until Mackler did an evaluation and suggested law instead. "My parents' vision of a lawyer was what they remembered from a different country," explains Raza. "Nobody in our family was a lawyer." Mackler patiently explained the profession and won Asim his parents' blessing. "She's pretty much the reason I'm practicing law today," he says, then chuckles. "There are times I curse her for it!"

Lee Mackler avoids handing out her own curriculum vitae, which — pried from her assistant — includes a doctorate in "organizational analysis-corporate culture" from Stanford; a master's from Washington University focusing on research into learning styles; 25 years' experience in teaching and administration; and co-authorship of a program that trains teachers to diagnose reading problems. But she's long past wanting to prove herself, and she's adamant about not making the firm into a cult of her own credentials.

She does, however, meet all hints of snobbery head-on, conceding readily, "We've been very fortunate, in terms of clientele. They come from the finest homes; they have the best resources in the world.

"We have also been fortunate that the product does what it says it does," she adds pointedly, "because if it weren't productive, it would be just gloss and fire."

Mackler started with the idea of helping teenagers prepare for standardized tests, because "that Saturday in May or November knocks too many kids out of potential careers." When she tried to show students that, strategically, the right answer to a this-is-to-that analogy question, would be the same part of speech, she found out they didn't know what adjectives and adverbs were in the first place. So she started tutoring, filling in the gaps. "We weren't getting to know them enough, though," she recalls. "It kept gnawing at me." Five years ago, she moved away from formal coursework to develop an individual plan for each student.

Some have what she calls "special needs," refusing to label any further. "They've been to too many Ladue specialists, with no coherent plan," she says crisply. "All I hear is what they can't do." Once she adjusts the focus, building on the ways they do learn, she turns to the Homework Doers: nice kids who "spit it back out and forget it the next day. Can't apply it, never integrate it. For their teachers, it makes for a nice day. So they give inflated grades. Then the standardized-test results come back, and the parents are saying, "Wait a minute — he got all A's in school!'"

A third set of clients are already earning top grades and test scores. Brilliant and driven, they're eager to polish their analytical skills, strategize college or grad-school admissions, or hike their scores even higher into the ether. The pressure doesn't always flow from their parents, either. "Quite candidly, we're getting a new model," remarks Mackler. "The kids are putting pressure on themselves, because society is demanding it. They'd come here at 7 in the morning if I let them. They'll say, "Doc, is it OK if I eat while we work?' I say, "Eat!' But soon they shove the hamburger or taco to the side, and they're at it."

At the opposite end sit privileged kids with mediocre records, kids who haven't yet learned to work hard and care. "Why should I bother?" they whine, and Mackler promptly agrees: ""Why should you bother — why not just be like everybody else?' And then I'll grab their hand and compliment their ring and say, "You plan on buying any more of those?' Or I might say, "One day you're gonna meet a boyfriend, and he's going to ask where you went to school.' Or, "So what do you play, buddy? No. 2 guard? No kidding. You're not the point guard? Oh, I get it — you don't want the responsibility of leading."

Word of Mackler's bluntly successful approach has spread: Parents are flying their kids in from Chicago, California, Long Island. "One man called, mentioning schools we'd never heard of," she recalls, "and it turned out he was calling from Houston. He said his son was an underachiever; he was going to fly him in for three weeks; he'd be at the Breckenridge."

Mackler found him a family to stay with instead and started figuring out why the boy wasn't motivated. "One of their major problems is priority-setting. They've just got too much going on." One student moved up his tutoring session so he could fly to New York to meet his parents for a show and dinner. Another student's parents stressed his need to attend Wimbledon, telling Mackler that as a former Olympic athlete (Olympic point guard in basketball, Olympic shortstop in softball and world-class pingpong player to boot) she should understand.

"I'm a musician, too," she retorted, "but that doesn't mean he can spend his time at Grateful Dead concerts."

"Sixth-graders are telling me, "I'll pencil it in,'" she sighs. "Many kids don't sit down to a meal with their parents even once a week. They're out at restaurants, whipping out the plastic. Over the summer, they swam in the Red Sea, they sailed in — " she gropes for the destination. "Not Bermuda; that's nothing anymore."

Sometimes all this cultural and international exposure deepens and matures a child. Other times, the glitz hides deep misery. Mackler has uncovered three borderline suicides with her "backdoor therapy." "A lot of times the kids just want to talk," she says, "and we'll push everything aside (she slides a book across the table to demonstrate) and talk. And then we will come back to it."

With parents, she's less gentle: She told one divorced couple, "I don't care if you two kill each other when you get out of here — you will do this together." And when a wife fluttered that her husband wouldn't be able to come because he was "a very important man," Mackler dryly remarked that she'd chosen the wrong adjective. The father was there the next week.

Listening to Mackler's down-to-earth observations, you wonder whether she'd secretly like to extend her client base a little, stretch it, say, to the North Side. Turns out she taught for years in the city schools, "where you'd better know what you're doing." At one point, she was chosen to teach in a special program for kids who'd never made much headway. "We even had a second-degree murderer in the class," she recalls cheerfully. "I spent that whole summer working on a literature syllabus. Then I walked in and they were sitting there, arms crossed, looking at me with shades on. I handed out the syllabi, and they tore them up in front of me. So I said, real slow, "Well, now, we've got a little problem, because you don't know what to do, and how will I assess you?' I told them they had 15 minutes to think and walked out of the classroom" (calmly breaking school rules for the effect). When she returned, their spokesperson said, ""Hey, you got any more copies of that thing you gave us?" Mackler looked contrite. "Aw, I'm real sorry, but I don't have any extra copies," she lied. "They got down on their hands and knees and started picking up the pieces."

Nostalgia is pouring into her voice like syrup of Coke — why'd she leave? "When you're the deputy superintendent, there's no place to go," she shrugs. "I would've wanted to be a principal forever, I thought that's where you could make a difference. Wrong. At least here, we have the gratification of seeing changes."

To many families, the $5,000 bill for those changes is prohibitively expensive. But for the service rendered, Mackler says it's actually quite low. "What do you charge for helping kids become doctors or lawyers and make half-a-million a year?" she counters, turning the question rhetorical. "I think that is the frustration teachers feel: When those kids come back and say that without that teacher it would never have happened, the teacher's still making $24,000 a year."

When John-David Graziano started at Mackler & Associates, back in sixth grade, "he was not even achieving B's and C's comfortably," recalls his mom, Susan Erker. "The school was telling me he was a slow learner; he needed glasses; they even blamed my divorce. But I knew he was capable — his father was a straight-A student." To this day, Graziano's dad only needs to read something once to grasp it forever. Drives his son crazy. All through grade school, Graziano had trouble just reading, let alone comprehending. By the sixth grade, he'd convinced himself that schoolwork didn't matter, and he spent all his energy "playing soccer, hanging around and going to recess."

"(Mackler) started giving me all kinds of tests," he recalls, still bemused. "When I was 13, she gave me entrance tests to law school. At first I didn't know why, and I didn't know I could ask. But she's really open — whatever she writes down about me in my file, she lets me read. Anyway, she'd noticed I could problem-solve really well, as far as thinking quickly on my feet.

"She taught me to use what I have," he continues, "and I started to excel." Today, he's a junior at the elite Whitfield Academy, where he recently made the dean's list, and continues to surprise himself. "Before, everyone just told my parents how good a kid I was; I was fun to have in class; I was playful," he recites, voice hollow and polite. "If I ever did do well, it was always, "Let's do better,' always finding what was wrong. Doc's not like that. I show her my grades and she's like, "That's OK; we'll run with it.'"

Still, Graziano thought Mackler was insane when she suggested he take Latin his freshman year. He was flunking Spanish at the time. Dubiously — because he'd come to trust her the way he trusts maybe three people in the entire world — he took her advice.

He won the Latin Award his first year.

"I don't know how she knows," he exclaims. "She's good at figuring people out. I'm good at that too, actually. I'm thinking I'll major in psychology, go into the Navy Seals and then the CIA. She's got schools picked out for me, but she won't tell me what they are; she wants me to choose for myself."

This is not to say Mackler won't steer, if she thinks the choice is wrong. Or network, if she thinks the student can do it but isn't sure his credentials will convince the board. "They like to play like it's all a lottery," she drawls, "but we work the boards with everyone. I know quite a few of these people. I traveled the country meeting deans. I say, "When we send you some references, we hope you will consider them seriously.' In the beginning, my credentials carried me. Now, the kids make us look good. They get the job done. And they put another chip on the table for someone else."

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