School & District Management

Online Tutoring Targeted at Rural Areas

By Andrew Trotter — December 07, 2004 4 min read
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A national association is teaming up with three of its regional members and one of the country’s largest providers of supplemental instruction to use the Internet to help give rural students better access to academic tutoring that is required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The partnership, armed with a $5 million, five-year federal grant, aims to overcome barriers that small and rural school districts face in obtaining such services from education companies, which mostly cater to large metropolitan areas.

“A lot of supplemental-service deliverers won’t go into rural areas,” said Brian L. Talbott, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Association of Educational Service Agencies, a group formed to assist the more than 630 education service agencies that exist in 42 states. “Rural districts are telling us, through their educational service districts, that they need a way to be able to combine and leverage their numbers.”

The project, announced last week, will create a model for contracting and purchasing online tutoring services. The grant will also pay the service provider, Catapult Learning, to deliver online tutoring to 300 students in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Georgia next spring, and to 500 more students in each of the subsequent four years of the project.

The students, who must qualify for federal Title I support, will be in districts served by the Wood County Educational Service Center in Ohio, the Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11 in Pennsylvania, and the Central Savannah River Area Regional Educational Service Agency in Georgia.

Individual Learning Plans

The purchasing model, if successful, would eventually be available for other regional service agencies and companies to use for arranging supplemental services.

Catapult Learning, a division of Baltimore-based Educate Inc., is one of a horde of companies that are stepping up to offer tutoring services to districts with schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” targets under the No Child Left Behind law. Those schools can become legally obliged to offer parents a choice of tutoring services.

Supplemental-Services Grant

Donor: U.S. Department of Education

Grant: $5 million over 5 years

Purpose: To establish a pilot purchasing program that is an effective, highly scalable, and replicable model for educational service agencies and local educational agencies to use to deliver and implement supplemental instructional and educational services under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Student benefits: Pilot project beginning in spring 2005 will give 2,300 disadvantaged students individualized, online supplementary instruction from certified teachers. Each student receives a new computer and free Internet access at home.

Grant recipient: Association of Educational Service Agencies, Arlington, Va.

Partners: Catapult Learning, a division of Educate, Inc., Baltimore; the Wood County Educational Center, Bowling Green, Ohio; Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11, McVeytown, Pa.; and the Central Savannah River Area Regional Educational Service Agency, Dearing, Ga.

Until now, though, said Jeffrey H. Cohen, Catapult’s president, his company and others have focused mostly on metropolitan areas because they have large populations and are easily accessible, in turn lowering the cost of providing tutoring services.

But he added that the new online project should help shift more attention to rural areas.

The project will also highlight Catapult’s online tutoring system, a proprietary method that Mr. Cohen said is similar to the face-to-face tutoring that the company provides to school districts.

Beginning next spring, each student in the project will receive at his or her home a desktop computer that is equipped with a special electronic tablet. Homes will also be given free dial-up Internet service, and the system will have voice-over-IP, a telephone service over the Internet.

Each student will be assigned a certified teacher; they will interact by phone and by writing to each other on their tablets.

The tutor could be located anywhere in the country; many, at least at first, will be in Baltimore. Students will follow an individual course of study in either mathematics or reading, based on a prescreening test and an individualized learning plan. The instruction ranges from the 3rd to the 9th grade levels. In two or three weekly one-hour sessions online, each student will work with the teacher on assignments and take frequent assessments.

At the end of the series of 40 sessions, which may last through the summer, a student will be entitled to keep the computer.

Potential Hurdles

Terry Nelson, the executive director of the Central Savannah Regional Service Agency in Georgia, said he has high hopes for the project. In his region of 12 school districts, most of them rural, schools have a hard time keeping experienced teachers in their classrooms. The schools also don’t have pools of retired teachers who might be willing to tutor students.

Mr. Cohen said he believes that between 300,000 and 400,000 students in rural areas nationwide may be eligible for supplemental instruction if the company can find a way to reach them efficiently. He said the online program is designed to be delivered for a cost of about $1,700 per student annually.

But J. Mark Jackson, an analyst at Eduventures Inc., a Boston-based research firm that monitors the education industry, said the national average is closer to $1,200 per pupil for supplementary tutoring—though he suggested the difference may be the cost of the technology that Catapult will provide to students.

For the company, the grant is a chance to leap to the front of a market that could be worth as much as a billion dollars annually, Mr. Jackson said.

But an expert on rural education said online delivery of education encounters some significant hurdles in rural areas, related to poverty and a lack of technological infrastructure.

“A lot of rural families won’t have telephones,” said Robin Lambert, a Kentucky-based consultant who has advised the Arlington, Va.-based Rural School and Community Trust on teacher-quality issues and federal education laws.

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