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Schools

Few takers on free, private tutoring

A fraction of students eligible under a federal act have signed up. Tutors blame schools for not getting the word out.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published October 9, 2005

Laketa Tillman almost threw the letter away. It was some official thing from the Hillsborough school district. Something about "supplemental educational services."

Okay. Yawn.

But something told her to read on. And then it hit her.

In so many words, the letter said her daughter Leslie, a third-grader at Folsom Elementary, was eligible for free tutoring.

"I said, "Wow, this is good for her,"' said Tillman, a preschool teacher who promptly signed her daughter up.

Hundreds of thousands of other Florida parents have gotten similar letters in recent months. But they didn't get the same message.

Preliminary figures show only a small fraction of the 350,000 Florida parents whose children are eligible for free, private tutoring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act have signed up.

Districts say many parents just aren't interested. But some tutoring companies question whether parents really know what their options are, and whether districts are doing a good job telling them. The conflict is playing out around the country as federally mandated tutoring grows into a $2.5-billion business.

"Some districts are not making it easy for providers to succeed," said Vickie Frazier-Williams, a spokeswoman for Chancellor Supplemental Educational Services, which offers tutoring. "The shame of it is, the children lose."

The No Child offer is one many suburban parents would jump on: private tutoring, in small groups or one on one, often with the option of service at school, at home or on the Internet. Yet thousands of inner-city parents are apparently saying, "No, thanks."

Or are they?

In Chancellor's home county of Broward, 40,000 students were eligible for free tutoring this year because they attend high-poverty schools that failed to meet federal standards three years in a row. But only 255 parents expressed interest.

Providers say the reason is obvious: The district sent out letters in February telling parents their children might be eligible in the fall.

District officials say they got the message out in other ways, including a second letter, news releases and notices in school newsletters, said Frank Vodolo, Broward's director of educational programs.

The bottom line: "It does fall on the parents to make a choice," he said.

In Pinellas, it's not just providers who are frustrated.

When Pinellas school officials declined to put on a provider fair - so parents could talk directly with tutoring companies before picking one - community groups in St. Petersburg hastily organized a fair of their own.

Last year, a district-organized fair drew only a handful of parents.

By contrast, last week's event at the Enoch Davis Center in Midtown drew a packed house of 70 parents and 100 children. Organizers got the word out by handing out fliers in community centers and barber shops.

District officials were "remiss in not involving the community," said Martin Rainey, who chairs a group backed by the local NAACP that calls itself the Community Tutoring Partnership. "The only thing they sent out was a little letter. Letters fall on deaf ears. We know that. They know that."

Federal rules require districts to set aside at least 5 percent and up to 20 percent of their Title I funds - federal money earmarked for high-poverty schools - for tutoring. Pinellas determined it could afford 3,800 tutoring slots.

It's unclear whether the district will reach that goal. The deadline for parents to choose a provider is Oct. 17 - a week from Monday.

In other districts, the response is all over the map. So are the number of set-aside slots.

The Orange County system is offering 1,400 slots for 16,000 eligible students, while Duval County, with 13,000 eligible, is offering 3,000.

Yet in both counties, the number of slots exceeds the number of responses. Nationally, the response rate from parents has been about 10 percent.

In Hillsborough, the selection deadline for 4,700 slots is Wednesday.

Tutoring industry representatives have complained to the state Education Department that some districts are not setting aside enough federal money, in violation of No Child rules. So far, the state has taken no action.

Providers say some districts are skirting the law in other ways - by sending letters riddled with legal jargon and preventing providers from posting fliers at schools.

Some tutoring companies have tried to publicize the tutoring option on their own, through radio and newspaper ads, mass mailings, even yard signs. But in the end, because of student confidentiality rules, they must rely on districts to get the word directly to individual students and parents.

Nationwide, some providers are discussing the possibility of pushing for a reduced role for districts in the tutoring program, said Steve Pines, executive director of the Maryland-based Education Industry Association. That may become an issue when No Child goes up for congressional reauthorization in 2007, he said.

But for now, he said, "this is the law and we have to deal with the districts."

The Education Department may be prodding districts into doing more. Late Friday, department officials said they were looking at ways to encourage districts to beef up enrollment for tutors, including those districts where signup deadlines already have passed. They declined to offer specifics.

Some districts are frustrated, too.

There are no official standards for tutors. And some fear there isn't a good system in place to gauge how effective they are. Meanwhile, districts must redirect federal money from other programs.

"What it costs us to run afterschool programs and what it costs providers, the difference is huge," said Vodolo, with Broward schools. "We can reach far greater numbers of students for the same amount of money."

If the response to tutoring is lean, districts pocket the money. Providers, who have a financial interest in encouraging the largest possible response, say that's a big incentive for districts not to get the word out.

Many districts insist they're trying.

"This is a good program. It's going to do good things," said Myrna Allen, who oversees the tutoring program in Duval County. But "any startup program has problems."

Parental involvement is one of them, she said.

Examples abound: Duval has 75 applications from parents whose phone numbers are no longer in service, Allen said. One woman who left a message about the program one morning had a disconnected phone number by the time district officials called back in the afternoon. Another who wanted to know more about tutoring companies was told the district had already mailed her a 30-page provider directory.

"Oh," she said, realizing then that she had used it to line her bird cage.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 9, 2005, 01:40:39]


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