U.S. Pushes the Use of Tutors at Failing Schools

One of the key provisions of the No Child Left Behind law is that children in failing schools should be given extra help in the form of tutoring. Yet millions of students who are eligible for tutoring aren't getting it. The U.S Education Department is warning school districts that, this fall, they must do a better job of signing families up.

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Many students return to school this week, and some are not getting the help they've been promised. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires assistance to poor children stuck in low-performing schools. They're supposed to get after-school tutoring. Two million eligible children are not getting it.

Now, the Education Department is pressing schools to do more, as NPR's Elaine Korry reports.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

Outside King Elementary School in Richmond, California, Spanish-speaking mothers stop to chat after seeing their kids off to class. King is like a lot of struggling urban schools with many immigrants, high poverty, and low test scores. Most students here automatically qualify for free tutoring, but Adrianna Perez(ph), mother of second grader Brian, says she never found out about the program.

Ms. ADRIANNA PEREZ (Parent, King Elementary School, Richmond, California): I don't remember, you know, you get so many papers, it is kind of hard to get track of it.

KORRY: And if she had known about nearly $1,500 in government money available to tutor her son, would she have signed up?

Ms. PEREZ: Of course. Yes, I would. Yep.

KORRY: And that's the crux of the problem. Nationwide, the Government Accountability Office says only one-in-five eligible students is signed up for free tutoring. The number has crept up a little but not enough to satisfy Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Ray Simon, who says every needy child should be served.

Mr. RAY SIMON (Assistant Secretary of Education): Getting them quality tutoring services early is going to help meet the mission of No Child Left Behind, and that is get them to grade level in reading and math.

KORRY: School districts have been blasted for dragging their heels on outreach. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently sent a letter to every state, threatening fines if they don't improve enrollment. But many school officials say they're working overtime to get the word out.

Ms. TONI OAKLAND(ph): Here's the catalog that we send out to parents, which is in English and in Spanish.

KORRY: Toni Oakland, who runs the tutoring program for this district, east of San Francisco, holds a fat, green brochure, ready for mailing to parents like Adrianna Perez. It describes all two dozen tutoring choices; from Internet services and the YMCA, to big, for-profit chains.

Oakland also holds a tutoring fair and talks up the program at back-to-school night. But of the 10,000 students in the district who were eligible only about 12 percent were tutored last year. That sounds terrible but according to Oakland, even if more kids signed up she wouldn't have a place for them.

Ms. OAKLAND: We have a waiting list of approximately 1,000 students.

KORRY: And that, says Oakland, is because of money. Funds for tutoring come from a big bucket of federal dollars set aside to help low-income schools. The Education Department says there's plenty to go around, but Oakland says she would need several million dollars more to tutor all the low-income kids in her district.

Ms. OAKLAND: Until we are able to serve every one of those eligible students, I would not describe there being plenty of money.

KORRY: The other criticism of the tutoring program is access. In many rural districts, there are few, if any, companies willing to set up shop for the money they can make off so few students. And in crowded urban districts, there may be a glut, with companies stumbling over each other to enroll kids.

Becky Robinson, who's in charge of tutoring for Los Angeles Unified, had 40 providers to deal with last year. She finally had to ban all of them from school property.

Ms. BECKY ROBINSON (Los Angeles Unified School District): We have other programs that are already using the facilities on campus. And with 40 in this year, and 67 next year, we do not have room on campuses for the providers to be able to provide.

KORRY: Naturally, that decision was unpopular with companies, as well as with parents who may have to pick their kids up from school and take them someplace else.

So, Robinson says, LA Unified relies on tutors who go directly to students' homes. That's a kind of business Al Porter runs. Porter Education, based in Washington D.C., serves about 1,500 children in Oakland, California, as well as Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky. Porter says he could be serving many more if both parents and schools would wake up.

Mr. AL PORTER (Owner, Porter Education): They're not signing up because they're not paying attention and also the school districts are making it a very difficult and cumbersome process.

KORRY: And that's what the Education Department says has got to improve.

For his outreach, Porter uses bus signs, billboards, and TV commercials. The visual media, he says, kids and their parents respond to. That's just one of the new strategies districts will be trying come September to deliver tutoring to the estimated two million students who need it most.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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