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Tutoring Firms, N.Y.C. School Employees Faulted in Probe

By Catherine Gewertz — March 14, 2006 3 min read
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Two private tutoring companies offered cash to principals and gifts to students in New York City to boost attendance in their programs and maximize the share of federal money they got for serving low-income families under the No Child Left Behind Act, an investigation has found.

In a report issued last week, Richard J. Condon, the special commissioner of investigation for the 1.1-million student district, says that providers of supplemental educational services also improperly obtained private student information and used it to try to sign them up. In addition, they allowed into classrooms instructors who hadn’t cleared security checks, and were later found to have criminal records.

The 18-month probe focused on two of New York’s biggest players in the business, Platform Learning and Newton Learning, which together serve 18,000 of the 75,000 city students using such services. But it found that other unnamed providers, as well as district employees, also engaged in improprieties.

The report lands as federal and state officials, districts, and providers nationwide debate how to properly implement the tutoring provision of the No Child Left Behind law, which requires that low-income students in schools that fail to make adequate academic progress for three years in a row be offered free tutoring.

The probe concentrated on three areas: misuse of confidential student records, weaknesses in background checks of provider personnel, and inappropriate use of incentives to increase enrollment or secure space in schools.

A Platform Learning representative, for instance, allegedly offered to pay one school $5,000 if it signed up 150 students, the report says. On another occasion, it says, a Queens principal solicited and got a “donation” from Platform.

TVs and Trips

One principal told investigators that a Platform employee suggested supplying televisions to the school to boost enrollment in the program. Another principal reported that a Platform representative offered her a trip to Puerto Rico for enrolling students. Not all of the gifts were accepted.

School employees gave students’ personal information to Platform employees, allowing the company to solicit parents at home, sometimes representing that the school had sent them, and sometimes telling parents that they must fill out the sign-up form if their children were to receive free lunch under the federally subsidized meals program, the report says.

Newton Learning, a division of New York City-based Edison Schools Inc., allegedly failed to complete fingerprint checks before allowing employees into school buildings, and offered improper incentives, according to the report. One Newton representative allegedly offered to pay money to a school for good student attendance in the company’s program. Others solicited students at schools and offered them money for attending, the report says.

In addition to accepting inappropriate gifts from providers, district personnel allegedly let providers solicit students on school grounds and gave them access to student records.

Tutoring providers and the school district said last week that procedures had been tightened up in the past year. Mr. Condon acknowledges as much in the report, noting that district rules no longer allow instructors in classrooms until fingerprint checks are completed, and that any gifts, rewards, or incentives to students or parents must now receive written district approval.

But he is calling for additional safeguards, such as the establishment of a mandatory code of ethics for providers.

Spokesman David Cantor said the school district now randomly monitors many aspects of providers’ operations and will require that any donations by providers go into a districtwide fund. “We’ve had a lot of companies very aggressively competing for federal dollars,” he said. “It’s taken every big city in the country a while to develop procedures to control the process.”

Eugene V. Wade, the chief executive officer of Platform Learning, attributed some of the problems to early confusion about the rules governing tutoring, among both provider and district employees. The company has fixed many of the problems and will continue to address issues as they arise, he said in an interview last week. “I’m not making any excuses,” he said. “We take full responsibility for what we didn’t do well.”

The company has put several employees mentioned in Mr. Condon’s report on administrative leave while it gathers more information, Mr. Wade said.

Laura Eshbaugh, a spokeswoman for Newton Learning, said the company has been “very responsive” to feedback from the district and the special commissioner. It has stopped such practices as paying bonuses to site coordinators for good enrollment.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Tutoring Firms, N.Y.C. School Employees Faulted in Probe

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