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Rural schools struggle to find tutors

New Town elementary school students who are struggling with class work are eligible for free private tutoring, if they can handle a 75-mile bus ride to Minot.

In Selfridge, the school superintendent, Bill Dietz, notified parents of children who need extra help that the nearest outside tutor was in Bismarck, 60 miles away. Nobody was interested.

"It's an alternative on paper," Dietz said. "We're so far away. That's quite an investment of time."

The federal education law called No Child Left Behind requires certain schools that don't show adequate progress three years in a row to provide outside tutoring for low-income students who are struggling with class work.

However, the state has had little luck bringing tutoring companies to children outside its biggest cities, said Laurie Matzke, the Title I director at the state Department of Public Instruction. Title I is a federally funded program, intended to provide extra instruction in reading and math for students who need it.

North Dakota has 20 schools that must offer supplemental services to 844 eligible children, Matzke said. However, just 118 students in 12 schools have signed up because most providers are far from the state's rural areas, she said.

"The schools around Bismarck have it made, but we're always trying to get someone for the other places," Matzke said.

Bismarck's Sylvan Learning Center is one of 11 state-authorized supplemental service providers that tutor students after school as part of No Child Left Behind.

During one recent session, seven children in three groups were spread across an open room, working on reading and math or getting help with homework.

Doreen Strom, a retired teacher of 33 years, sat at the bend of a U-shaped table with three elementary school-aged girls facing her. The girls were each working on a different reading lesson.

"Do you know what a metaphor is, Lindsay?" Strom asked. "It's when you say one thing is something else. It's like, 'Lindsay is a beautiful butterfly.'"

New Town Elementary's principal, Jean Hall, said that last year, the school bused students 150 miles one-way to the Sylvan center in Bismarck. Because of the distance, the school limited the tutoring to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, she said.

Minot State University has since started a qualified tutoring program, but New Town students still must travel 75 miles each way, she said.

"I think the intent was good, but I don't think they were thinking of rural North Dakota when they made the No Child Left Behind law," Hall said.

Minot State's Diagnostic and Remediation Center was started last October to give schools a closer option, said Joyce Hoadley, the center's director. During the fall semester, about 20 tutors, mostly junior- and senior-year elementary education majors, helped 50 New Town students with reading and math, Hoadley said.

Besides giving school-children a closer tutoring center, it lets university students practice what they learned in their education classes, she said. Tutors develop lessons plans tailored to a student's weaknesses, and teach one-on-one or in small groups, Hoadley said.

Working in the center is not required, and tutors don't get college credit, but the jobs are paid, she said. The program is already using substitute teachers to augment its student tutors.

"Once more schools start needing supplemental services, we'll have more than we can handle," she said.

The quality of North Dakota schools may be acting as a deterrent to tutoring services. Compared to other states, North Dakota has few schools in need of supplemental services, which makes it harder for private companies to make money, Matzke said.

Of the 11 authorized providers, nine are run for a profit. If more schools have to offer tutoring, then more businesses will come in, she said.

"They don't see the dollar signs right now," said Matzke.

Schools are looking for alternatives to fill the gap in services. The Department of Public Instruction has already approved six online supplemental service providers, but Matzke said parents and children prefer to work with a tutor in person.

Sylvan is offering an experimental program in Fort Yates, called Ace It!, that is similar to Turtle Power. Dietz hopes that soon his Selfridge students will have the option of traveling the 17 miles to Fort Yates, instead of making the longer Bismarck trip.

Until then, the school district is spending its supplemental services money on its own three-week summer program, he said. About 15 students will spend their mornings working on reading and math, along with an occasional field trip, Dietz said.

Turtle Mountain Community Schools and Dunseith Public Schools are using a locally developed program called Turtle Power, said JoAnn Wittmayer, the program's coordinator.

Wittmayer, a retired Belcourt teacher, started the program when she heard about the long bus trips New Town students were taking for the service.

The Peace Garden Consortium, a group of twelve school districts, gave her the backing she needed to get DPI approval. Wittmayer said she trained 35 teachers from Belcourt and Dunseith schools on the Turtle Power tutoring program.

The teachers work from their classrooms and offices in the local schools, so the 75 children in the program don't have to travel, she said. When they are finished, most students take their school's late bus home, as those in other after-school activities do, Wittmayer said.

"It's working really well, especially in elementary school," she said.

— James Warden, Associated Press
Bismarck Tribune


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