Leveling the Playing Field

By Linda Jacobson — November 01, 2005 7 min read
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On an overcast and chilly Saturday morning, students and parents begin to wander into the central courtyard at North Hollywood High School. Surrounded by tables draped in colorful cloths, the visitors begin to pick up brochures or follow their young children to the woman giving away lollipops.

Lawrence Fierros, 13, listens as Daina Calderon, the assistant director of the Huntington Learning Center in Woodland Hills, Calif., explains a concept during a Monday-night tutoring session.

With smiles on their faces, the men and women behind the tables offer to answer the parents’ questions. Others let their slogans draw people in: “To get an A+, come study with us,” promises one banner.

For these low-income families in the Los Angeles Unified School District, this provider fair is their first chance to size up the providers delivering free tutoring services under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Their children are eligible for the help because they attend schools that have failed to make adequate academic progress for three years in a row.

The law is forcing new relationships between school districts, which arrange for the tutoring, and such families. Some parents are skeptical of anything that purports to be free. Others are hard to reach. Districts also are learning to navigate their new roles as brokers and, sometimes, providers of the services. Los Angeles Unified, with 742,000 students and a budget this school year of nearly $80 million to spend on such “supplemental educational services,” generally earns high marks for its efforts.

A look at some of the assistance available here illustrates how a central provision of the federal law is actually playing out for some of the students it was most intended to serve.

“You have to keep in mind that you are the client,” Pilar Buelna, who helped organize the Sept. 24 fair here, advises a mother and her daughter as they sign in on a clipboard.

The Parent Information and Resource Center for Families in Schools, a nonprofit organization that has held 20 fairs all over the district, works to help parents sort through the variety of tutoring available for their children. The range is daunting: in-home, center-based, even online. The district also has sent letters directly to parents and put fliers in the schools. For many of these parents, the idea of free tutoring—especially the kind of one-on-one tutoring that private school students on the West Side of Los Angeles can afford to receive—is too good to be true. Surely there must be a catch, maybe a one-month trial period before the companies start charging fees, many parents think.

“I don’t get anything for free,” says Antoinette Rios, a mother from Canoga Park, Calif., who chose Huntington Learning Centers for her 13-year-old son.

Such skepticism is evident at the Education Station booth at the fair. A sister company of Sylvan Learning Centers, Education Station offers in-home tutoring over the Internet with a live tutor. Not only does a student receive personalized help at a convenient time, but he or she also gets a free Dell computer to keep after completing the 24 one-hour sessions.

“It’s not a software program. A teacher builds the program for that student,” explains Brian Libutti, an account manager for the Baltimore-based company, as 10th grader Christopher Estrada and his mother, Ana, listen.

Libutti adds the program is popular with athletic coaches because their players can receive tutoring at a time that doesn’t interfere with practice.

No Child Left Behind Law Requires Supplemental Educational Services

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, supplemental educational services—free tutoring programs, primarily—are offered to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches if their schools have failed for three years to make adequate yearly progress. Making AYP means a school has met state academic standards.

School districts are required to make parents aware of this opportunity for extra academic help for their children. Parents can choose from lists of providers approved by their states.

Districts must reserve 20 percent of the federal Title I money they receive to pay for these tutoring services and for transportation for students who choose to change schools under another provision of the law.

“I like that. He’s in sports,” Estrada says about her son, adding that the virtual-tutoring arrangement seems more practical than driving to a center. “I’m a busy mom,” she says. “I work too late, and the problem is transportation.”

Christopher, with an ear bud from his iPod in one ear, likes the idea as well, and says the individual attention might be more useful than what he’s getting in his English class. “The teacher doesn’t really explain the writing assignments,” he says.

Parents are allowed to choose either mathematics or language arts—the main subjects tested under the federal law—for the sessions. And for now, they can use the services even if their children aren’t trailing behind in class. If the district begins to run short of money, students in academic trouble will get first preference.

Denise Hernandez, a 1st grader at Gridley Elementary School in Sylmar, Calif., has just started learning to read and isn’t having trouble, but her mother, Claudia, decided to visit the fair because Denise’s teacher encouraged her to attend.

“Her teacher was very interested, and it’s a free program,” says Hernandez.

She adds that she thinks she’s going to sign up with Carney Educational Services, an in-home provider that uses hands-on games to teach standards-based lessons for elementary school pupils. “That’s what she needs—she gets bored so easy,” Hernandez says of Denise.

Becki Robinson, a program specialist for the Los Angeles district, says more than 26,000

students registered just before the second deadline, Sept. 30, for tutoring this school year. (More than 292,000, or about 40 percent, of the district’s students are eligible for the tutoring.) That’s why the district school board added a third deadline, Nov. 15.

The district has set aside almost $80 million in federal Title I money for tutoring and public school choice, another provision of the No Child Left Behind law. So far, more than half of that amount is being used for tutoring services, but with the third deadline for registration, that figure is expected to increase. If the money goes unused because there is not enough demand, Robinson says, the district will redirect it to use for all students served under Title I, the main federal education program for disadvantaged children.

Alexander Tran, 13, center, talks to his classmates during a recent tutoring session at the Huntington Learning Center in Woodland Hills, Calif. The student is one of the thousands in the Los Angeles Unified School District taking advantage of the free help under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But many more are eligible.

The thought of matching so many students with 40 tutoring providers—without any federal money for administrative costs—seems like a scheduling impossibility. But Robinson, who does it all with one assistant, runs a smooth and efficient system, according to those who work with her.

Once a family chooses a service, the provider receives the student’s grades and a “learning plan template” for the material the child needs to cover. Providers submit monthly invoices and attendance reports on each child, listing how many hours of tutoring he or she received.

“L.A. Unified has been amazing,” says Monique Todd, a vice president of Carney Educational Services, which is based in Glendale, Calif., and is working with 261 students from the district so far. Tutors, she says, receive information on their pupils’ home languages and test scores, so when the tutors make their first visits, they have a “very educated guess” about where they need to start.

District officials are “very precise, and very strict,” says Matthew Lupsha, the vice president of education and school support for Kumon Math and Reading Centers. The Teaneck, N.J.-based company is one of the large, national tutoring chains providing services here.

In the midst of sorting through all the registrations that are flowing into the office, the Los Angeles district’s “Beyond the Bell” department—which handles activities other than sports that take place before and after the regular school day—is hoping to again become a supplemental-services provider itself.

For the first three years of the NCLB law, the Beyond the Bell learning center program, which operated on Saturday mornings for 30 weeks of each school year, was included as a provider. At one time, it was serving about 16,000 students, Robinson says.

In December 2004, the U.S. Department of Education stopped allowing Los Angeles Unified and other districts to provide supplemental services under the federal law because the districts themselves had failed to make state academic goals.

Armando Nunez walks by the kitchen where Eddie Mayorquin, 14, right, works at the kitchen table with tutor Faith Singer, center, and the student's mother, Maria Flores. The session took place on a Saturday morning at the family's home in Reseda.

But last month, the Education Department relented, allowing some districts, such as Chicago, to provide the services even though they haven’t met their state’s academic standards. Robinson is hoping Los Angeles will be allowed to join that group.

In the meantime, Los Angeles Unified continues to offer a Saturday-morning program, Extended Learning Academies, from another pot of Title I money. Robinson says one reason parents might not be signing up with tutoring providers is that their children already are receiving help from the Saturday program or in an after-school class.

Others, she says, might be afraid to share personal information with a company because of their immigration status. Reaching parents, Robinson says, is a lot easier if schools help promote the supplemental-services program, but attitudes about doing so can vary.

North Hollywood High, whose fair was one of several held in the district recently, is an example of one campus that makes an extra effort to support the tutoring opportunity.

“Anything additional we can provide to make kids successful is a great thing,” Assistant Principal Stephen Foster says, after explaining some instructions to a parent in fluent Spanish during the fair. “You’re leveling the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Leveling The Playing Field


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