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Needy students deprived of tutors


Thousands of Broward students are still waiting for tutoring they were entitled to by federal law.

BY Nirvi Shah

The Broward school district had $20 million to tutor needy students this past school year -- enough to help more than 16,000 kids who struggle with basic math and reading.

More than 9,000 parents signed up for the tutoring after the district announced its availability in September.

But a Miami Herald examination of the program shows that as of May, just 3,300 students received the assistance they were entitled to under the federal No Child Left Behind law, while thousands of others were left waiting for tutoring that never happened.

''The children are the ones who are left short-changed,'' said state Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. ``People who need help are not getting the help.''

The school district, which was criticized last year for discouraging parents from signing up for the program, admits that while it did better at getting the word out this year, mistakes were made. Today, the state Board of Education will vote on whether Broward lived up to state expectations or if the district should be penalized. The state wanted Broward to tutor about 12,000 kids.

The Miami Herald found that a number of mistakes paralyzed Broward's program:

ΓΆ€ΒΆ The district waited until a month after school began to announce that tutoring was available.

ΓΆ€ΒΆ Tutoring companies hired by the district were overwhelmed by demand and had to rely on bad contact information for families.

ΓΆ€ΒΆ Some tutors expected poor families -- who may not have cars -- to travel as far as Miami for the lessons.

Tanya Saddler, who is raising her grandson while putting her son through college, didn't learn about the program until May. She immediately signed up.

All year, Yovon, 11, struggled with math at Annabel C. Perry Elementary in Miramar. Saddler didn't have money to spare for tutoring.

Now that it's summer, Yovon is finally working with a tutor.

But had Saddler known about it sooner, she said, ``he wouldn't have had it so tough during the school year.''

Under federal law, the district must offer free tutoring to students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches and attend schools where few students have passed the FCAT for three years.

Other districts have overcome hurdles of the tutoring process. While Broward tutored just 20 percent of the students it had money to pay for, Miami-Dade tutored more than 17,000 kids -- about 90 percent of the needy students it has money to tutor -- or five times as many as Broward.

With the addition of summer tutoring, Broward could reach 42 percent of students it has money for.

Dade succeeded for several reasons. It divides its massive county into zones and asks tutors to choose which zones they can serve efficiently. Next year, Broward will do something similar, said Frank Vodolo, who supervised the district's tutoring program.

Dade also used unconventional methods to get the word out to parents.

For example, the district partnered with the Miami Heat. Heat forward Udonis Haslem recorded a message for an automated phone call to parents advertising the program.

''It can work, but it takes a lot of energy, money and skill to get it going,'' said Rafael Urrutia, who ran Dade's tutoring program this year. ``You have to want to make it work. You don't want it, it's not going to happen.''

Broward acting Superintendent Jim Notter conceded that the district needs to improve its program.

''I believe, like in any brand-new venture, that there will be some bumps in the road,'' Notter said. ``I'm not convinced the district didn't have their act together. I truly know we can do better. That's clearly what we're going to do.''

But the venture wasn't entirely new. In 2005-06, Broward discouraged parents from signing up in a letter to parents announcing the program. Then-Superintendent Frank Till stated in the letter, ``These funds can be much better spent helping students in the classroom.''

After Broward sent the same letter during the 2006-07 school year, the state intervened and forced the district to send new letters. The district mailed the new letters to 31,548 eligible families between September and December.

It worked. About 9,400 parents signed up.

But most never got what they asked for.

Among them was Viviana Chizik, who, after signing up in the fall, waited eight months for lessons for her son Alan. He will be an eighth-grader at Driftwood Middle School in Hollywood and has trouble with math and spelling.

''I don't ask for things that nobody promised me,'' said Chizik, of Pembroke Pines. ``But if you tell me I'm going to get tutoring, I want to receive it.''

Tutors contracted by the district to perform the services range from established businesses to small start-up companies. The state vets the companies.

They tutor students one-on-one at home, in groups after school or at their own facilities. They must meet with parents, give pretests and have tutors' backgrounds checked. Broward tutors get paid $1,258 per child.

While some of Broward's 46 tutoring companies said they were unprepared for the deluge of students, others said the school district wasn't prepared, either.

Broward kept sending new students to A to Z In-Home Tutoring all year -- three times as many as the 300-student limit the company set, regional coordinator Jessica Rejune said. Then A to Z had to meet individually with every parent, which slowed the company down so much that some parents turned down tutoring.

''I'm sure every provider will agree that it was chaotic,'' Rejune said. ``We worked it out as best we could.''

Miami Herald staff writer Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.

— Nirvi
Miami Herald
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