A harder look at after-school help

It's 3:15 p.m. at William Monroe Trotter Elementary School, and instead of heading for the exit through the school's peach-colored and electric blue doors, many students are breaking into small clusters for their after-school tutoring session.

Third-grader Justin Murray is sitting at a table with classmates, excited about what he learns reading books out loud with his peers. "The words make more sense when you read as a group," he says.

Trotter Elementary is one of about 8,000 schools nationwide required by the government to provide supplemental educational services - a formal name for after-school tutoring - at no charge. The extra help is mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind education act, which celebrated its second anniversary on Jan. 8. The law states that any school failing to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) three years in a row must provide free tutoring when requested.

It's one of the provisions of the law that would seem to be above reproach: How could offering extra instruction to students at poorly performing schools possibly be less than a good idea? But some of those on the front lines say the system has yet to prove its own worth.

"This is really a pilot program to see how well children will do," says Trotter principal Gail Forbes-Harris, whose school offers a choice of three tutoring providers - two private companies, and the Boston Public School District. "People are feeling good about it, but then the proof is in the pudding when we're able to see if the children have made real gains."

The results may take a while. Since many under-performing schools are only in their first year of offering the after-school tutoring program, it's a tad too early to hand out progress reports.

But a new report by the American Enterprise

Institute (AEI), a think tank in Washington, D.C., reveals that there are wrinkles still to be ironed out.

The report pinpoints some challenges of supplemental services: some parents were never notified of the free tutoring; states didn't finish their lists of approved providers until after the school year started; and - even though tuition is free - some areas have low participation rates. In addition, Congress left it up to the states to define their own adequate yearly progress, which means standards as to who must provide the services vary widely.

"There's this tremendous murkiness factor," says Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies and Resident Scholar, at AEI.

The startup of the system has been difficult, acknowledges Nina Rees, deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the US Department of Education. But as implementation continues and the programs are better publicized, she insists, things will get better. "Districts are going to have to spend more time implementing the law, and parents are going to have more information about providers."

The cost per child to the school district can vary substantially, ranging from about $800 to $2,000 per student annually, depending upon how much the district receives in Title I money. According to the AEI report, whatever money goes unspent, districts get to keep. That can amount to as much as $37 million for a large city like New York or several thousand dollars for smaller cities.

It's a system that actually provides districts with a financial disincentive to inform parents of their rights to these services, say some critics.

"The districts, which are theoretically being punished for having done this ineffectively, are also providing the remedial tutoring," says Dr. Hess. "There's obvious conflicts."

A majority of schools that should provide the services do so, says Hess, with some allowing parents to choose among as many as 30 possible providers.

But a legion of choices is no guarantee of quality, he adds, particularly because the providers will not be as familiar with the children or the curriculum as their classroom teachers. "It's hard to tell at this point whether time spent with folks outside of the traditional operation will be as effective," he says.

At Trotter, Harris embraces the program because it saves parents money. Her school of about 600 students has 150 slots for after-school tutoring and almost as many students are enrolled.

"You never know if it will be enough or not," says Harris, "but right now, at least we're not grappling with children who are in need of tutoring and we can't give it to them."

But some districts struggle instead with low participation. According to the US Department of Education, only 12.5 percent of the nearly 250,000 eligible students in New York City in 2002-03 signed up. In Louisville, Ky., only 12 percent of the 2,100 eligible students in Jefferson County enrolled in after-school tutoring.

"There's a stigma attached to tutoring," says Ms. Rees. "Most people think it's something you have to pay for, so in order to sell this to parents, community groups have to focus on the 'free' aspect of it."

Some schools have moved aggressively to recruit students for their after-school programs. One principal in East Baton Rouge, La., rode a bicycle through the halls of his school to spread the word.

But frustration remains. "There is a huge awareness gap," says Jeff Cohen, president of Sylvan Learning, one of the nation's largest private tutoring companies. "There are instances where there are thousands of eligible children and not that many parents are taking advantage of it."

Despite all the challenges swirling around supplemental services, says policy analyst Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States in Denver, says the positive potential far outweighs the negatives of such programs.

"The more structure and the more qualified staff, the more rigorous planning you put into it, it all adds up to impact," says Ms. Christie.

But the bottom line for most parents will probably be their children's report cards.

Lucy Johnson says her son, Brandon, a fourth-grader enrolled at Chittick Elementary in a low-income section of Boston, at first didn't want anything to do with tutoring.

But she says, "When I talked to him about the program, we pretty much agreed that we would try it together."

The result: "Before, his comprehension of a book was awful. Now he's able to tell me what he's reading about."

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