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Will free tutors help students? It's time to learn

Some students are eligible for tutors paid for by the government. But it remains to be seen how the system will work.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 18, 2005

If you're the parent of a struggling student in a struggling school, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has a heck of a deal for you: free tutoring.

But the deal comes with a hitch, a leap of faith and a long list of concerns.

The hitch: It's up to the parents to choose from among dozens of private tutoring companies, some old, some new, some national, some home-grown.

The leap: Nobody really knows if the tutors will make students smarter.

And among the concerns: Whether there is enough oversight of a budding, $2.5-billion tutoring market that has spawned hundreds of companies overnight.

Many fear the program is ripe for abuse.

"We have lots of questions to ask . . . and have an obligation to watch the growth of the system very carefully," says Patricia Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. "There is the potential for fraud."

In Florida, those issues are now rising to the surface as federally mandated tutoring kicks into high gear. Florida school districts will soon begin spending tens of millions of dollars to tutor tens of thousands of students. It's part of what the New York Times describes as "one of the nation's largest experiments in educational capitalism."

Under No Child, school districts must redirect up to 20 percent of their federal antipoverty dollars to tutor students in Title I schools that failed to meet federal standards three years in a row. Title I schools have high numbers of low-income children.

Last year, only a handful of Florida schools fit the bill, but this year hundreds do, making up to 370,000 students eligible. In Pinellas and Hillsborough, the number of affected schools rose from four to 90.

Combined, the districts have set aside nearly $13-million to tutor 8,500 students.

It's hard to see how extra academic help could hurt. But some observers wonder how much progress parents will see, given tutoring companies that range from big-name corporations like Sylvan to storefront operations that geared up just a few months ago.

Because there are no standards for tutors, "There's a huge range in the quality," said Joe Sterensis, who owns Advanced Learning Centers, a St. Petersburg tutoring company. "You're going to have some excellent providers. You're going to have some shady providers."

It's up to the state to monitor them. And for now, it doesn't have a system to do it.

Florida has walked this road before - with its private school voucher programs - and it came away with mixed results. In one case, the state dropped a Tampa school from the voucher program after learning it had ties to Sami Al-Arian, the former professor now on trial over charges of supporting terrorists. In another case, a Polk County Christian school reportedly took more than $200,000 in voucher money for disabled students who never attended.

Most tutoring companies are "going to do the right thing," said Jim Warford, the state's former K-12 Chancellor. "But somebody's got to keep a close eye on them."

* * *

For the education industry, the No Child tutoring provision might as well be a capitalist knockoff on Chairman Mao: "Let 1,000 flowers bloom."

More than 170 tutoring companies have been approved by the Florida Department of Education, including more than 40 from out of state and 20 in the Tampa Bay area.

Three are churches. Two are tied to universities. One is a science museum.

Some are community centers, including the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee and the Partnership for a Drug Free Community in West Palm Beach. Some are schools.

One provider specializes in music therapy for autistic children. One is known for inspiring disabled people through boating.

One is a local teachers union.

Big or small, they'll receive about $1,300 per child in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and in return most will offer 30 to 40 hours of service.

Some established local companies expect No Child business will double their revenues. It could provide newer operators with all of their revenues.

Right now, Milford Chavous's 3-year-old company in Temple Terrace, Game Plan Academic Coaching, includes Chavous and one other tutor. But Chavous, whose outfit is listed in Pinellas and Hillsborough, says he has other tutors lined up if No Child funnels more business his way.

His pitch: As a black man, he can relate better to struggling black students.

"I know there is a dire need for role models," said Chavous, who teaches math at Brewster Technical Center in Tampa and coaches basketball at Sickles High.

Every company spins an upside. Some offer one-on-one help. Some make house calls. Others offer sessions online.

At St. Petersburg's Achievia Tutoring, students who make progress earn "Achievia credits" that they can cash in for bicycles and boom boxes.

"The kids will choose it because they'll have fun," said Achievia owner Skip Tylman, a guardian ad litem and former Proctor & Gamble executive. "The parents will choose it for the results."

But whether parents will choose at all is a growing concern.

Last year, the participation rate among eligible students nationwide was less than 20 percent. Some observers say that is shockingly low considering that tutoring companies typically charge $40 to $60 an hour and many affluent families can't sign their kids up fast enough.

Some blame the school districts.

Under No Child requirements, districts must inform parents about the free tutoring, but many skirt the rules by sending letters "laden with the usual bureaucratic jargon," wrote Harvard University professor Paul E. Peterson in Education Next magazine.

The motive: If parents deep-six the letters and ignore the program, districts pocket the unused money. "They have a clear financial disincentive to encourage student participation," Peterson wrote.

His solution: Make districts return the money if they don't spend it.

Other observers are pointing at parents.

Last year, more than 300 students were eligible for tutoring at Gulfport Elementary in Pinellas. According to principal Lisa Grant, the school and the district mailed separate letters about the program to students' homes; the information was included in first-day packets and take-home newsletters; and the school held a provider fair so interested parents could meet the tutoring companies.

About 10 families showed up. Ultimately, 50 to 60 students signed up.

If those trends continue, many who need tutoring the most won't get it.

Already, some students can't get the extra help because of quirks in the federal law. At Gulfport last year, one high-scoring student took advantage of free tutoring because he was in the free-and-reduced price lunch program and thus eligible, Grant said. Meanwhile, some low-scoring students could not get tutors because they did not qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

"It's frustrating," Grant said.

The state asked federal education officials to change that this year, but did not get an okay. Depending on turnout, the point might be moot: If too many children apply for limited slots this fall, districts will prioritize seats based on academic need.

In both Pinellas and Hillsborough, signup deadlines are still a few weeks away.

Federal officials say they're optimistic. They expect the participation rate to rise as more parents become aware of their options.

* * *

Kristina Militello's sons, James Siebenthal, 11, and Bryar Siebenthal, 9, are among a handful of students who took advantage of the tutoring option last year.

And Mom couldn't be happier.

James, a Gulfport Elementary student, had been retained in third grade two years ago but continued to stumble on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. After tutoring, his scores rose to grade level, Militello said.

Meanwhile, Bryar shifted from middle-of-the-road on the FCAT to best in his class. Now he's begging, "When does tutoring start, when does tutoring start?"

But is tutoring why the boys scored higher?

In part, Militello said. But the school and its teachers "had a lot to do with it, too."

Her observation brings up key questions: Are tutors helping? How do we know?

Under No Child, states decide those questions. And the law says if providers aren't making progress, they can be booted after a second subpar year.

In Florida, state education officials have proposed an evaluation system that tilts heavily toward FCAT scores. But for now, it remains a work in progress.

Some observers say monitoring success won't be easy.

"All the states are having some difficulty in how to do the monitoring," said Nancy Sardinas Lambert, who oversees the No Child tutoring program in Hillsborough. "It's such a new program, and such a much bigger animal than people expected. . . . It takes a while to come up with a quality system."

The big question: If a student makes gains, how much credit should go to the tutor?

When Hillsborough officials reviewed scores for students who participated in the program last year, their first conclusion was that one of the providers had done great, Lambert said. But on second look, the data showed gains coming under one tutor in particular. And an even closer look pointed to that one tutor in combination with one particular teacher.

Providers have another question: Should tutors be expected to make the same level of progress for all students?

"Give me a third-grader who is barely behind grade level, has fairly normal intelligence, has reasonable living conditions at home," said Sterensis, who owned a medical supply company before starting a tutoring company six years ago. "Give me that student versus a student with a very low IQ, with dyslexia, with hyperactive disorder . . ."

"You have to take into account the types of children we're working with."

* * *

The political message behind No Child's tutoring provision is clear: If public schools aren't doing a good job teaching students, let the private sector have a shot.

But in many cases, private tutors are public school teachers, either retired, moonlighting or away from school for one reason or another.

Several Tampa Bay area tutoring companies say their ranks are filled with classroom teachers. And in Pinellas, a nonprofit formed by the local teachers union is on the state's provider list.

"The private sector, they're in it for the money. We're in it for the kids," said Rik McNeil, a union rep who heads the union's new tutoring arm.

Some question if No Child has just created a revolving door between teacher and tutor. But "there's a distinct difference" between teaching in a classroom and teaching one-on-one, said Steve Pines, executive director of the 600-member Education Industry Association.

"I don't have a problem that it's the same teacher," Pines said. "The intervention is of a different kind."

The association is concerned, though, with what some consider federal backpedaling on a related issue.

Earlier this month, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings agreed to allow the Chicago school district to provide tutoring, even though federal rules had barred it from doing so because the district failed to meet state academic goals. Other urban districts hope to get a similar deal, potentially shrinking the pool of federal dollars available to tutoring companies.

Said Pines: "We would prefer that the secretary . . . go very slow on the use of this kind of waiver."

Some providers say other bumps in the road are likely. But they don't see a dead end.

Government-financed tutoring is only "going to get bigger," Sterensis said. "Regardless of your politics, it's here."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.

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