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NCLB Outrages

Tutoring Options Available Under NCLB

Although this article in Minnesota-based, it provides a survey of what's going on across the country. Of special interest is Sylvan Education Solutions' "hopes of becoming the nation's biggest provider of tutoring services under the new law." What we need is a reporter sitting in a Sylvan Center for a month....and writing about what she sees. Fat chance of this happening, of course. They report on what the Sylvan press releases claim goes on. Maybe it would take only a week to reveal the ugly underpinnings of their so-called tutoring system.

Aimed at helping low-income children, the law requires 15 troubled schools to pay for tutoring.

Hundreds of families in Minneapolis and St. Paul will get the chance next month to sign up for a program that's as close as Minnesota has ever come to private school vouchers.

Fifteen schools identified as underperforming will be required to pay out as much as $1,500 per low-income student to get taxpayer-paid tutoring from a state-approved list of groups, which may include for-profit companies and religious groups. Millions of dollars are at stake and even St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts have signed up to provide tutoring.

Supporters say the program will give parents in struggling schools a new tool to help their children. Critics fear it will siphon financial resources away from the very schools that need the most help.

Public school districts in the last decade have become used to vying over students with other districts or charter schools. Now, they could find themselves competing with such groups as the Salvation Army and Huntington Learning Centers. The tutors list comes out in November, and schools are expected to announce how parents can enroll soon afterward.

"We have to recognize we aren't the only game in town,'' said St. Paul area superintendent Gene Janicke, who helped develop the district's tutoring program. "We have to be more responsive to our customers families, students and taxpayers. Competition is a good thing.''

The program is part of the No Child Left Behind law passed by Congress in 2001. Schools designated as not making "adequate yearly progress'' for three consecutive years must set aside a portion of their federal funding to pay for the tutoring of their low-income students.

At the three identified schools in the St. Paul district, qualifying parents can choose tutoring services worth up to $1,350. In Minneapolis, where there are 10 of the schools, the maximum amount is $1,502.

About 5,000 students in both districts are eligible. While there won't be enough money for each qualified student to receive the maximum, the program represents an unprecedented opportunity for families to choose tutoring programs previously out of reach because of costs.

"I never considered it before,'' said Brenda Holman, who has a son at Lucy Craft Laney at Cleveland Park Community School, a qualifying Minneapolis school. "It's a pretty interesting idea, to allow students to get help outside of school.''

Huelaug Vang, a parent at the same school, said he is worried about his fourth-grade son's reading skills.

"I need help with my child,'' he said. "I think it will be a good idea.''


Parents will face many choices.

Besides the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, 45 organizations have applied to the state Department of Education to become providers. In their applications, the groups spell out what services they would provide to students.

The familiar names of the for-profit tutoring world have applied, including Kumon North America, Sylvan Education Solutions and Kaplan.

But the applications also include those from faith-based organizations and the nonprofit sector. The Boys and Girls Clubs Twin Cities has applied, and so has the Salvation Army.

The programs differ in many ways. Some offer one-on-one tutoring. One charges $9.17 for an after-school session; at least four groups are charging $40 an hour or more.

The St. Paul district's program, called After the Bell Rings, will have six students for each instructor, with 88 two-hour sessions offered four times a week. A snack and a bus ride home for kids who live farther than one mile from school will be provided.

Sylvan Education Solutions will have six students to each instructor for one-hour sessions offered two or three times a week. No transportation is provided. Because Sylvan charges more money for its sessions, the student will receive up to 45 sessions about one-fourth the instruction time offered by the St. Paul School District.

Parents will have to weigh many issues when choosing a provider. Their neighborhood school may offer an attractive program in terms of transportation and hours of service, but the only reason it is offering these services is that the school has failed to show adequate progress under No Child Left Behind.

Janicke says he'll sell After the Bell Rings to parents based on its value, the knowledge St. Paul teachers will have about students in the program and the fact the program is on the site of the child's school.

"Parents will shop wisely,'' he said. "They will see they get a lot more services with After the Bell Rings. It's a better bargain.''

At the East Side Learning Center, a one-on-one tutoring program offered by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sister Audrey Lindenfelser bristles at the suggestion that her program will compete in some way with the St. Paul district.

"I don't see us competing at all,'' she said. "If we can help 10 children or five children, that's what we'll do. If we are no longer needed, we'll move on.''

Sylvan Education Solutions has hopes of becoming the nation's biggest provider of tutoring services under the new law. So far the company has been approved in 26 states.

"I see it as a partnership rather than competition,'' said company president Jeff Cohen. "As soon as the selection is made by the parent, I'm in partnership with the school district. We want to achieve the same thing.''

Such competition comes close to private school vouchers, where qualifying parents can use a public subsidy to send their child to the school of their choice including private schools.

The entry of for-profit and religious groups competing for public funds to provide tutoring services to students is something new to Minnesota and the country. But State Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke said it's an approach worth trying.

"Our problems with the achievement gap in this state are so deep and broad we can't afford to just nibble around the edges. We need to do something that has the chance for grand, systemic change,'' she said. "This gives the schools a chance to do something different.''

One concern raised about the new program is that money for the tutoring services will reduce federal funds available to the most troubled schools. This is already coming at a time when the state has cut back funding for after-school and summer programs.

If more individualized instruction is helpful, shouldn't the teachers who work with those children provide it, asks Judy Schaubach, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.

"Some of our concerns are that it will siphon away funding from the classrooms that are struggling,'' Schaubach said. "There are questions raised about this whole approach. We don't know if this is the most effective way to use resources.''

— John Welsh
NCLB Law: A new option for struggling pupils
Pioneer Press


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