Federal Tutor Intitiative Is Itself Left Behind
For James Green, Joliet Central High School's offer was an easy sell: free tutoring at a reputable center.
Now the high school sophomore is working twice a week on advanced math problems at Huntington Learning Center, hoping to boost his geometry grade with tutoring that would normally cost him $40 to $60 per hour.
But of the 1,944 students at Joliet Central eligible for the free services, Green is the only one who signed up.
Only a tiny fraction of Illinois children are getting the tutoring promised by No Child Left Behind--just 5.5 percent of the 325,944 eligible last year under the federal law.
Many families simply are not interested. Some never realize they are eligible. And those who want the help often find the programs ineffective or inaccessible.
Statewide, 453 schools are required to offer tutoring to their students this school year, according to state report-card data released this week.
In Elgin, Chicago Heights and Zion, students are still waiting for the services to begin, three months after school started.
In Decatur, no approved tutoring service expressed any interest in working with the children, leaving them without help all of last year.
In Cicero, which runs its own tutoring program, there aren't enough interested teachers to meet the demand.
And in Chicago, about half of the 82,000 participating students are in district-run tutoring programs that soon could be shut down by the federal government, which has cited a provision of the law barring failing districts from offering tutoring.
Even when programs get off the ground, they are not ideal. At a West Side school in Chicago Tuesday, dozens of students in a program marred by missing materials and disorganization spent most of their two-hour session watching "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas."
"It's just a little trickier than people assumed it would be," said Judy Green, director of school improvement for Waukegan District 60, who recently attended a meeting where administrators shared frustrations about the program. "I didn't hear anyone having rousing success."
Tutoring is paid from federal funds provided to districts, and all low-income students in public schools that have not meet state benchmarks for three consecutive years are eligible.
If there is not enough money to tutor everyone, school officials decide who needs it the most. Most districts set aside about $1,100 to $1,500 per student for private programs, but others say they save money by running it themselves.
Next school year, as many as 655 schools, including well-regarded suburban schools such as Hinsdale South High School, Evanston Township High School and Highland Park High School, could be required to provide the after-school help, depending on their scores on tests next spring.
U.S. recognizes problems
Federal officials acknowledge there have been glitches with tutoring services but say it's better than having no program.
"You have to start somewhere," said Nina Rees, assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. "Districts need to do a better job of marketing what it is that they are offering."
A letter sent to Joliet Central parents was filled with bureaucratic jargon. It isn't until the sixth paragraph that parents learn their child might be eligible for "supplemental services," a phrase that means little to most parents.
And even when parents can plow through the jargon, they sometimes get mixed messages.
Classandra Green, James' mom, said Central school officials discouraged his participation, arguing that he is an honor student and doesn't need the extra help. The Greens decided to go ahead because James' honors came in other subjects, while he struggled with math.
LeRoy Campbell, whose daughter is a Joliet Central freshman, said Principal Craig Spiers told him private tutoring could cost the family money and suggested instead that she enroll in a school-run tutoring program separate from No Child Left Behind.
Spiers said he didn't discourage any families and attributed the low interest to parent and student apathy.
There has been no shortage of interest in Chicago Heights, but the 300 students in District 170 who signed up for their program are still waiting for it to begin. The district decided to stretch its federal dollars by starting the program in late January and offering more hours in a shorter number of weeks.
In the state's second-largest district, Unit District 46 based in Elgin, the services also haven't started, but officials plan to send a letter to parents next month to offer tutoring.
About 1,000 low-income children at four U-46 schools are eligible for the extra help this year under the federal law. But last year, only 40 children at two Elgin schools signed up, and only one was tutored in person at a center. None of the companies offered bilingual instruction, a critical need in the district.
"We are not at all clear that the [federal] program is meeting the needs of kids who need it most," said Liz Wolff, who researched federally ordered tutoring across the country for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a national advocacy group.
Some programs in their second year are gaining momentum, as parents become more familiar with the option. But delivering the service in the most effective way remains a challenge.
In Waukegan most of the tutoring programs are just getting under way this month, serving 550 children, compared with 39 who got help last year.
Help via computer
Last week, on the first day of the online tutoring program called Brainfuse, eight children at Webster Middle School signed on to computers to introduce themselves to their instructors, who are based in New York, North Carolina and Texas. There was one tutor for each student, and most worked on math problems.
Jerry Cruz, a 7th grader, struggled with a decimal problem asking him to put several numbers in order. After getting the question wrong several times and having a hard time explaining what he didn't understand, he typed to his tutor, "Is there something easier?"
It took 10 minutes of back-and-forth typing before he got the problem right.
"I like that you get to talk back to them. In school, you can say `repeat it again' and sometimes the teacher is already far ahead," Jerry said.
Feedback is not Jerry's only incentive: The tutoring company will give him a $30 gift certificate if his attendance is good. Since the company only gets paid when a student shows up, that's an investment in continued revenue.
`That's just not acceptable'
At Chicago Public Schools, the district's largest provider, New York City-based Platform Learning, will be paid as much as $18 million this year to provide 80 hours of on-site tutoring to about 13,000 children at 77 schools. But Platform's ideals--small classes grouped by ability, a focus on learning skills instead of tests--haven't always materialized.
Maureen Morrison, whose primary work is teaching 2nd grade at Spencer Math and Science Academy in the Austin neighborhood, quit her side job with Platform this week. Even though the program started seven weeks ago, she said she never received books or materials.
Without that guidance, Morrison said, the tutoring sometimes amounted to nothing more than extra help with homework, or even letting the children play board games and watch movies.
"It's really an injustice for the students here," Morrison said.
She also said teachers have not been paid what was promised.
A Chicago administrator said problems with Platform's tutoring have surfaced at about a dozen city schools. A Platform representative met with administrators at Spencer Thursday to resolve what the company considers isolated lapses.
"That's just not acceptable, and it's our responsibility," said Eugene Wade, Platform's chairman and chief executive officer. "It's not typical of our program around the city. But we have to resolve this, or we shouldn't be allowed to offer these programs."
Still, children said they are grateful for the individual attention.
At a Platform program at Guggenheim Elementary on Chicago's South Side, 8th grader Tierra Allen said reading aloud with a tutor helped her understand why she struggled with certain vocabulary words. It's an opportunity she rarely gets in a packed room with 30 classmates.
"This is helping me in school," she said. "These after-school groups, they take their time and give us more one-on-one work."
Jodi S. Cohen and Tracy Dell\'Angela
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