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Interest grows in tutor program
School officials expect to "max the numbers" this year as more parents take advantage of the free service.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published September 9, 2007
HUDSON - When Heather Schaeffer heard she could get free tutoring for her children, she didn't think twice.
"I said, 'Thank you, God.' Because I didn't read until junior high. My father had to get a second job so I could go to Sylvan," Schaeffer said Wednesday night, as she attended a tutoring provider fair at Northwest Elementary. "I just raced right over."
Last year, Schaeffer had no problems getting her son, Sylvester, and daughter, Gretchen, into the federally funded program, a component of the No Child Left Behind Act. In Pasco County, as nationally, just a small percentage of the children eligible for services actually took advantage.
This year, the number of eligible students has grown along with the generally favorable word of mouth. Schaeffer worries that her kids won't get access to the services that the federal government promises to low-income children who attend schools that don't make adequate yearly academic progress for three or more years.
"My kids need extra help," she said. "Sometimes, teachers give homework but don't explain it, and the kids don't bother to ask. ... For me to go and teach it, well, I have a cosmetology degree, not a teaching degree."
Her concerns are not without merit.
Pasco has about $2.4-million to put into No Child Left Behind choice options, including tutoring. With a state-imposed cap of $1,199 per student, officials estimate they can provide tutoring to about 1,500 children. Another 100 or so have taken a choice voucher to another school.
"We know we have almost 6,000 students who are eligible" at 15 schools, up from 11 a year ago, said Lydia Ray, who oversees the tutoring program for the district. "We know we're going to max the numbers."
The district already has made plans to parcel out the available seats in that event. If the number of applicants surpasses the number of seats by the Sept. 14 deadline, Ray said, the district will give first priority to students who scored Level 1 or 2 on the most recent FCAT exam.
"We're going to put all the students in the computer system and not assign them until we have a chance to see how many have registered," Ray said.
The district has taken additional steps to ensure that some of the problems that plagued the tutoring system last year do not recur. One of the biggest issues was making sure that kids who sign up actually get tutored.
Last January, according to district records, about 780 children were getting tutoring. Another 100 had yet to be served.
One of the reasons: Tutoring companies signed up students before hiring tutors and then didn't follow through.
This year, the district is not assigning students to the companies until they have provided proof that the tutors are hired. The tutors also must have clean background reports filed with the district ahead of time.
As an extra test of their reliability, the district is requiring tutors to attend each school's provider fair. If a company cannot send a representative when parents are coming to register or ask questions, Ray explained, its commitment to serving students is not strong enough.
That's as it should be, said Jack Brown, an area supervisor for Club Z, a Tampa-based tutoring firm.
"If you have infrastructure and you're invested in the community, you shouldn't have a problem," Brown said. "I like the rules. They really benefit the small business owner and the local guys who are really trying to make a difference in the community."
Why the contractors?
Club Z, like many of the other providers, uses local teachers to do the tutoring. Several educators have wondered why the federal government is funneling money through the private firms, rather than just giving the money to school districts who already hire the teachers and might provide the services more cheaply.
When Pasco was looking at offering tutoring on its own, it planned to charge $20 an hour. The private companies charge anywhere from $40 to $90 per hour. And they're not required to hire degreed educators.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who helped craft No Child Left Behind, recently told a group of Tampa education leaders that he considered that part of the system a "scam." He is proposing that districts be allowed to use a portion of their tutoring and choice money to offer after-school programs run by the schools.
In the meantime, though, teachers continue to flock to the tutoring program.
"I wondered why this has to be done, having independent companies come in to do what educators do all day long, and then get hired to do this," said Darlene Lyman, a teacher who oversaw the tutoring program at Pasco Elementary and now helps A+ Tutor U. at four schools. "But then I gave it up and decided to do this."
In her role at Pasco Elementary, Lyman said, she saw some companies thrive while others failed to meet student needs. She said the new rules helped drive out the lesser providers, leaving the better ones to serve the kids.
"I have so many teachers in my school that want to tutor now, because of the success we had last year," Lyman said.
Parents catching on
Parents are more interested in this second year, too.
Kim Wellman said she was surprised last year when her boys, Logan and Hunter, were among the small handful attending tutoring sessions at Northwest Elementary.
"I thought it was great," Wellman said. "I think they learned a lot."
It was just a matter of time, she figured, before others would catch on. She would have preferred the program stay small, so her kids get more one-to-one attention. But if they don't get in this time, Wellman said, she's okay with that, because they improved so much last year.
Northwest principal Tracy Graziaplene said she's done all she could - earlier notice, detailed packets and so on - to get more kids involved. Looking around the provider fair, she liked what she saw.
"Last year at our open house, we had three or four companies that came. Right now we have 13 meeting with (parents) and talking about tutoring," Graziaplene said. "I'm hoping a lot of parents come and take advantage of it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
Low-income families who send their children to Title I schools that have not made adequate yearly academic progress for three or more years can choose to enroll their kids in a different school or to sign them up for free tutoring.
The state allocates $1,199 per student, and Pasco schools have about $2.4-million for the program, meaning about 1,500 children can receive the services. About 6,000 are eligible. Enrollment continues through Sept. 14.
The participating elementary schools are: Cox, Pasco, Marlowe, Hudson, Gulfside, Schrader, Lacoochee, Northwest, West Zephyrhills, Chasco, Moon Lake, Shady Hills, Sunray, Richey and Locke.