Supplemental Help Can Be Hard to Find for Rural Students

December 06, 2005 7 min read
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State officials and advocates for students in rural America say that many thousands of students in small and remote school systems are not getting the free tutoring that is their right under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The Center for Education Policy found in March that only about 18 percent of all eligible students nationwide received the free tutoring in the 2004-05 school year. A lack of tutoring providers in areas beyond cities and suburbs makes that percentage much lower in rural communities, experts say.

Mark Fallis, the site coordinator at Glenwood Elementary in Rossford, Ohio, checks the progress of Abby Weaver, 6, as she works at a computer during the after school tutoring program at her school.

Wyoming schools have not provided any students with the free tutoring thus far, even though as many as 200 are eligible. West Virginia had only two students sign up for the tutoring in its first year, and now serves just 74 students. And while Alaska has nearly 600 students in tutoring programs, some 14,800 qualify to receive the services.

“It is presently, and will be more difficult to service rural kids” in supplemental programs, said Steven M. Ross, a professor of educational psychology and research at the University of Memphis. He is studying NCLB tutoring programs throughout the country.

Under the nearly 4-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, schools receiving Title I money that fail to make adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years must offer low-income students “supplemental educational services,” or free tutoring, using part of their districts’ federal Title I aid. Eligible students and their families are supposed to be able to choose from a range of public and private providers.

But a number of factors keep those services from many rural communities. The problems include a lack of well-qualified tutors, inadequate transportation for eligible students, limited Internet access, and a reluctance among for-profit companies to serve areas where only a few students qualify.

“We’re still trying to figure out what works best in rural areas,” said Jennifer Harmon, the director of the federally funded Supplemental Educational Services Quality Center. She is a senior research analyst at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research.

Missing Out?

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that about 226,000 students of the roughly 2 million who qualified received free tutoring services under NCLB in the 2003-04 school year, nearly double the number getting tutoring in 2002-03.

According to Ms. Harmon’s center, less-populated states such as Montana and South Dakota have fewer tutoring providers—which include for-profit companies and smaller nonprofit groups—than more heavily populated states.

While such numbers make sense considering the small populations in some largely rural states, experts say that the limited number of supplemental-services providers makes it possible for rural schools to tap only one or two providers—if any at all.

Even when services are available, there “tends to be a much lower usage rate in rural areas than in urban areas,” said Steffen Saifer, the director of the child and family program at the Northwest Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore., who is monitoring the availability of NCLB-related tutoring nationally.

The lack of supplemental-services options can be a good sign in some places. Wyoming has only three schools that rate low enough based on the state’s test-score goals to qualify students for the services. Some other states, in contrast, have hundreds of schools that score low enough to qualify.

West Virginia had 74 students who took part in the 2004-05 school year, most coming from bigger towns, said Karen Davies, the Title I coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education.

“We have struggled with supplemental educational services,” Ms. Davies said.

Resource Gap

States with smaller and more rural populations generally offer fewer supplemental-educational-services providers than states with larger populations and more densely populated areas.

States with largest number of SES providers: States with fewest number of SES providers:
New York 233 Nebraska 2
California 215 Wyoming 3
Ohio 196 Hawaii 6
Pennsylvania 172 Idaho 6
Florida 149 Utah 10

She and other state-level officials are concerned that federal money meant for tutoring may be going to waste.

Federal law requires that districts spend up to 20 percent of their federal Title I allocations to pay for tutoring and school-choice-related transportation for students in schools labeled as needing improvement for two or more years. Transfers must be offered after two years of failing to meet performance goals, and tutoring after the third year.

Without the participation of more students, schools are not using money that otherwise could pay for extra teachers, Ms. Davies said.

Online Help

The federal Department of Education is attempting to provide more tutoring for rural students in three states under a two-year, $1.1 million grant to the Arlington, Va.-based Association of Educational Service Agencies.

The AESA, which represents regional education service centers that often provide services to smaller school districts, has recruited service centers in Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to gather groups of small districts in regional contracts with a company providing online tutoring services.

“We were hearing from some of our agencies that serve small and rural districts that they were having trouble attracting providers,” said Peter C. Young, the AESA’s chief financial officer.

The AESA offer was attractive for Baltimore-based Catapult Learning because the strategy could enable it to find lots of rural clients without shopping for individual contracts with small districts, said Jeffrey H. Cohen, Catapult Learning’s president.

“The only thing that determines whether one gets served is where they live. That’s fundamentally unfair,” said Mr. Cohen. Catapult’s parent company, Educate Inc., may be selling one of its online divisions. (See related story, Page 9.)

Participating families in rural districts in those three states receive computers so their children can talk with tutors who are certified teachers, using headsets and microphones, during two-hour online sessions. Students also can use interactive video screens to work on problems and quizzes with those tutors.

Dillon Koprowski, an 8th grade student in Rossford, Ohio, completed enough at-home tutoring sessions with Catapult Learning to earn a free computer.

Nearly 300 students have participated in online tutoring through the AESA project with Catapult. When students complete the program, their families can keep the computers.

The program allows some rural families to use computers at home for the first time, and some students’ skills have jumped by entire grade levels on Catapult’s online tests, said Douglas M. Garman, who oversees the Wood County Educational Service Center, which works with nine school districts south of Toledo, Ohio.

Some experts are concerned, though, that schools will rely too heavily on technology for tutoring.

“For many students, it’s just not an intensive enough intervention,” said Mr. Saifer at the Northwest Educational Laboratory. Students also must have technology skills, reliable technology, and be self-motivated, he said.

‘Really Interested’

No students in Wyoming have received tutoring as required by the No Child Left Behind law, at least not yet. The state is in its first year of requiring schools to provide supplemental services and has between 100 and 200 students in three schools eligible for the tutoring, said Brian Wright, a grant manager who works with Title I programs for the Wyoming Department of Education.

Mr. Wright said that one of the rural schools in his state that must offer tutoring is on an American Indian reservation that already has after-school activities and must figure out how to dovetail the added tutoring with its existing programs. Some families also lack home telephone lines that would allow them to access online assistance, he added.

In Wisconsin, many rural parents have been reluctant to apply for tutoring, said Bob Kellogg, the director of a regional education service agency based in Gillett, north of Green Bay. Only one school in the 26 districts in his area must provide such services.

“You know, a lot of our people are poor, but they don’t want anyone to know it,” he said.

In parts of Alaska, tutors travel great distances by airplane. Teams also are training community groups as tutors, and supply the services online and by telephone, said Sheila Box, an education specialist at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

Even with 562 students in the tutoring statewide last year—many more than in some other largely rural states—Ms. Box was discouraged because about 14,800 students were eligible.

The problems include an absence of economies of scale, a dearth of adults in villages who have the time or skills to offer such services, and poor online connections, said Ms. Box, who is overseeing the NCLB tutoring programs for her state.

“Most of my districts that I talk to are really interested in getting extra services for kids.” she said. “They want to get the better services for kids, but they can’t.”


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