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NCLB Outrages

NCLB A Book for Tutoring Industry--And Some People Are Beginning To Verify Quality

by John Mooney
Rash of Tutor Programs Spurring New Concerns

Say what you will about the No Child Left Behind Act, but the controversial law is certainly proving a boon for New Jersey's tutoring industry.

More than 100 organizations, public and private, have signed up with the state to provide tutoring programs to children in schools deemed underperforming, as mandated by the federal law enacted last year.

The clientele is ready-made and well-funded, with more than 30,000 children eligible and nearly 7,000 already enrolled, according to the state's preliminary count. Federal funds will pay up to $1,500 for each student's tutoring.

Taking part are large tutoring companies and local public schools. There are well-known community organizations like the Urban League, as well as the less familiar ones like the Learner's Academy for Children, located at Chenault's Taekwondo on Route 10 in Randolph.

The rush of new programs has provoked concern.

One program born out of the new law and serving the bulk of students in Newark and Camden already has come to the state's attention for its aggressive marketing.

"I think we have done everything we can to ensure (providers) are capable of doing the job," said John Ingersoll, a planning associate in the state office overseeing the program. "Whether they actually do the job, that we'll have to see."

At the center of the program is the law's requirement that all schools meet certain student performance levels each year. Those that fall short in any one of 40 categories for two straight years can face sanctions. In New Jersey, there are 208 such schools this year, and another 1,000 in jeopardy of it next year.

The sanctions start with the offer to families to transfer their children to better-performing schools, but so far fewer than 300 have taken up the offer, according to the state. The second option is the free after-school tutoring, paid out of the district's federal Title I money for poor students.

As many as 2,200 have enrolled in Jersey City from 15 schools; 1,200 have enrolled in Newark; 2,700 in Elizabeth, and 400 in Passaic. To be eligible, a child must attend a school identified as underperforming and also meet criteria as low-income.

The state set a master list of providers, with New Jersey officials saying they reviewed staffing and expertise, as well as how programs match up with the state's curriculum standards. Districts then contract with the providers that best meet their needs.

"We are committed to approving a wide array of vendors," said Suzanne Ochse, acting director of the state's Title I office. "The federal guidelines require it, but we wanted to give people as many options as possible."

Virtually all of the big tutor and test-preparation companies have at least a foot in New Jersey. Sylvan Learning Centers is one of the largest providers in Newark, with close to 100 students. Kaplan Inc. isn't in New Jersey yet but is registered in this and 30 other states, in essence reserving a spot for when it is ready.

"Certainly, this is a growth opportunity for us," said Seppi Basili, vice president of Kaplan Inc. "But it is a resource issue, too, and you can only go so many places."

At the other end of the spectrum, Larry Chenault has been running an after-school program for several years out of his Randolph Taekwondo center. He saw the new law as an opportunity to extend the after-school program.

He hired two teachers, as well as a college professor, and so far has 10 Paterson children and another seven from Newark, starting in January. Bused to the center at no extra cost, the students get mostly reading and math, but also a 45-minute martial arts class "where they can appreciate the value of discipline," Chenault said.

"I'm not interested in making money out of this, just to cover costs," he said. "I just think the idea of these families helping themselves is important."

Other districts are doing much of the work themselves. With restrictions against the underperforming schools serving as tutoring centers, districts have come up with some creative alternatives.

In Jersey City, one of its highest-performing schools serves as the citywide program. Bayonne brings in high school math teachers to teach the middle schoolers. Depending on the program, teachers can make as much as $40 per hour.

"We really liked the chance of using our own teachers," said Ellen O'Connor, director of Bayonne's Title I office. "It's a program we know and can control a little better that way."

That's a common refrain of educators, worried about outside programs they know little about. Passaic schools require student testing before and after the tutoring to determine what progress is made.

"Some of it seems more marketing and a nice brochure," Superintendent Robert Holster said. "It's a bit of trial and error, and unfortunately, it's the kids at stake."

Districts are required to notify the families, but that can vary from a letter home to forums held for the providers to pitch their wares.

In the first year, advocates say many New Jersey districts have not done enough. "I believe supplemental services in the end is what will close the achievement gap, and the idea that parents get to choose is a good one," said Debra Jennings, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy network.

"But the choice needs to be informed," she said. "And they are just not being given enough information to be informed customers."

The issue of how students are enrolled has been a sore point in Newark, where Platform Learning -- so far the largest of the city's providers -- has been criticized as being a little too zealous. The district twice sent letters to the state complaining about Platform's marketing tactics, which included mass mailings and street canvassing.

State officials said they are taking a close look, questioning whether the company is leading families to believe they are eligible when they are not. "You are setting up people for expectations that can't be delivered," said Ochse, the state's Title I director.

The founder of Platform Learning said his teams never tell families they're enrolled without the district saying so first. As for his marketing in general, he made no apologies.

"The districts are supposed to notify parents who are eligible, but most that we have dealt with had never even heard of the program until we spoke with them," said Gene Wade, a former executive with the for-profit Edison Schools.

He added: "There are parents who would say we haven't been aggressive enough."

Rash of Tutor Programs Spurring New Concerns


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