Under overcast skies, students and their parents begin to file into North Hollywood High School’s central courtyard. The morning is chilly—not typical fallweather in Los Angeles. Nor is the presence of so many teenagers and their families at a school on Saturday a frequent occurrence.
But inside, standing behind tables draped with colorful cloths, pamphlet-brandishing representatives from several nationally respected tutoring companies are jostling each other to offer the low-income, minority students free one-on-one tutoring worth more than a thousand dollars.
“You have to keep in mind that you are the client,” tutoring-fair organizer Pilar Buelna reminds a mother and her daughter as they survey the smiling company reps trying to draw their attention with lollipops and bright advertising placards. “To get an A+, come study with us,” promises one banner.
“I don’t get anything for free,” says a skeptical Antoinette Rios, a Canoga Park mother who’s here with her 13-year-old son.
Buelna and the other fair coordinators from the nonprofit Families in Schools, which lobbies schools on behalf of parents and works to include them in their children’s education, run into a lot of such confusion. But the tutoring is indeed gratis—one company is even handing out free Dell computers to go with its online offerings. The vendors are competing to offer their services to these kids, most of whom are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, because they attend schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District that have failed to demonstrate adequate yearly progress in educating students for three years running. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, districts that have failed to make AYP for two years in a row must pay for low-income students’ private-sector tutoring, and for Rios and many other Los Angeles parents, this is the first chance to see what that provision looks like in person.
From a national perspective, though, private tutoring looks like a photograph that’s still in the developing tray. As No Child Left Behind enters its fifth year, a report by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Center on Education Policy found that of about 300 districts surveyed, 10 percent had to offer students tutoring in 2004- 05. Yet many officials weren’t sure whether the extra help was effective, and 35 percent of states had no system to track tutors’ quality. Even worse, rural students have been caught in limbo when tutoring companies declined to set up shop in remote areas; under NCLB rules, districts that haven’t shown improvement can’t hire their own tutors to do the job.
“If a school district is unable to raise student achievement with the amount of money it’s getting,” notes Nina Rees, the deputy undersecretary in charge of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement, “it’s not equipped to offer tutoring services after school.”
At stake is the 20 percent of districts’ Title I budgets—the federal anti-poverty money given to schools—that NCLB mandates be reserved for tutoring and transportation to other schools. So the Chicago school system, for example, is aggressively promoting its in-house tutoring program even though it will likely be identified as “in need of improvement” for missing state benchmarks for a second year. The districts in Boston, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio, have also run afoul of the rule. Critics have even charged that systems trying to hold onto their Title I money have gone out of their way to avoid telling parents that they can sign up their children for free private tutoring because the unused funds revert to the schools.
That might have something to do with the Center on Education Policy’s finding that only 18 percent of students eligible for free tutoring actually took advantage of it last year.
In such immigrant-rich areas as Los Angeles, that number may be kept down by parents who know about the free tutoring but worry about disclosing their illegal status in the country. For those who have shown up at the North Hollywood High fair today, however, the options— center-based learning, in-home visits, and online help are all available—look pretty rosy. Or at least better than nothing.
Ana Estrada, who’s here with her 10th grade son, Christopher, is listening with approval as Brian Libutti, an account manager for the tutoring company Education Station, describes the option of in-home tutoring over the Internet with a live tutor.
Even the boy in question, listening to Libutti’s sales pitch with one ear and his iPod with the other, seems to like what he’s hearing. The individualized attention would beat what he’s getting in his English class, where, he says, “The teacher doesn’t really explain the writing assignments.”