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Few Eligible New York City Students Get the NCLB Free Tutoring

Ohanian Comment: Why does the reporter imply that tutoring from a for-profit outfit would be better than tutoring from the child's school?

Has she seen the piles of worksheets that pass for tutoring in, say, Sylvan?

The very school that failed them has quite a ring of indignation. But it hides a host of issues. Is the NCLB failure label fair, accurate, and just? One would need to visit quite a few of the schools the 243,249 eligible children attend to make a judgment. After all, another Times education writer, Michael Winerip, has shown how unjust and inaccurate the rating is in specific schools he has visited.

Question: How much money did New York City receive from the Feds? How much does NCLB cost them to implement?

A vast majority of New York City children who were eligible for free tutoring last year under a new federal law never got the extra help, and critics say there are few signs of improvement this year.

While the city was hailed as one of the first systems in the country to get a tutoring program up and running, there is widespread agreement that letters and other communication to both parents and groups offering the tutoring services were paltry, confusing and often discouraged enrollment.

The offer of tutoring for poor children in failing schools is a small but potentially powerful part of the 2001 law, known as No Child Left Behind, and nowhere could the benefits be greater than in New York City, which has the nation's largest school system. Nearly a quarter of a million children, in 312 of the city's 1,200 schools, are entitled to the services.

But last year only a small percentage of New York City students got the extra services and few had the wide choice of public, private and nonprofit providers that the law requires. According to the city's Department of Education, only 30,333 children requested tutoring, 12.5 percent of the 243,249 eligible. Of those, all but 3,640 were tutored by the very school system that had already failed them.

Of the federal funds available for tutoring, New York City spent less than half of the $27.5 million that was to be the minimum expenditure under the law. Theoretically, under one interpretation of the legislation, the city could spend up to $82.5 million.

School officials say they hope to do better this year. But they acknowledge that tutoring will not be available until late in the fall. And child advocates say that letters to parents in the spring were even more confusing than those in the previous year, making no distinction between children eligible to transfer to another school and those eligible for tutoring. Nor is there any current information about tutoring on the education department's Web site.

Still, New York City has done better than most school systems, according to federal officials and child advocates, as a tutoring program, however limited, began last winter. Liz Wolff, research director for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, said that when New York's program started, Minneapolis still had no list of approved state providers, St. Louis was in a state of complete disorganization, Florida was claiming to have no failing schools, and Texas only two. Ms. Wolff, whose association is a nationwide organization for low-income families, added that it would not be clear for a few months which systems improved.

Federal officials say they plan to monitor tutoring efforts in New York City and elsewhere this year, withdrawing federal Title I funds used to pay for the tutoring if appropriate.

"The first year you could argue there was a lot of confusion," said Nina Rees, a deputy under secretary in the federal Education Department. "But the statute is very clear about what local education agencies are supposed to do, and the department will be doing more intensive monitoring."

The city Department of Education, even as it unveils an overhauled administrative structure and a new curriculum, promises an easier enrollment process for tutoring this year and more effective outreach. Officials said they would do a better job of sending letters: no photocopies half off the page, no providers with long-distance telephone numbers and "sites to be determined."

"We will try and get the information out better this year, be as transparent and comprehensive as possible," said Michele Cahill, a senior policy counselor to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein.

But for the moment, information remains hard to come by, first and foremost when the tutoring will begin. Ms. Cahill said there is no official starting date because it is not practical to go forward without an updated list of qualified state tutors. Her best guess is November.

The decision to wait, rather than let parents begin signing up with tutors approved last year, infuriates Eva Moskowitz, chairwoman of the City Council Education Committee, who accuses the department of "passing the buck" to the state.

"I would frame the question this way," Ms. Moskowitz said. "If it was your child who was failing, would you want to wait until a few months into the school year?"

The Bronx borough president is also fuming, since nobody in his office knows the city's plans. "The response to questions is almost, `How dare you ask?' " said the president, Adolfo Carrión Jr.. "If I can't figure out what's going on, what happens to Mrs. Rodriguez from Tremont Avenue? Fuhgeddaboutit, as we say in the Bronx."

The challenge in New York, and in other large urban systems, is that parents are especially hard to reach. Some are so poorly educated that they would be better served with a letter at a fourth-grade reading level, rather than the dense, acronym-filled communications they received.

To make matters worse, critics say, many parents speak no English, and even if they got a letter in their own language, they would have a hard time calling providers to compare services. And many are single parents, working long hours at jobs where it is not possible to make personal calls on company time.

"This is not set up for parents who aren't incredibly savvy and who don't have 15 extra hours a week," said Jill Chaifetz, president of Advocates for Children. Her organization is about to release a survey of the obstacles faced last year by providers, particularly the complaint that they were not informed about non-English speaking or learning-disabled children so they were not geared up to serve them.

In addition, the private and nonprofit tutoring services complain that they were often denied access to the schools, making it hard to reach eligible parents. They also said they were never given lists of eligible families so they could contact them directly and, some said, they feared losing lucrative contracts with the department if they made a fuss. This year at least one private service, Sylvan Education Solutions, is doing its own outreach, sending community relations managers into certain neighborhoods with information and applications.

Other barriers to choice, both parents and providers said, were the inaccurate lists of approved tutoring services and the tight deadlines parents were given for applying. Martin Sachs, director of the Service Corps of Retired Executives center in the Bronx, or Score, tutored children at his center last year, before it was clear whether they were eligible. The parents had been unable to get timely answers from their own schools.

Tutoring is offered to children below the poverty line in schools receiving Title I funds that have been labeled "in need of improvement" for at least two years.

Some say part of the blame lies with the families themselves.

Michelle Houston, whose son Walter attended middle school in Bedford Stuyvesant and was tutored by Kaplan, had nothing but scorn for many parents. She got two letters, Ms. Houston said, adding that there were information tables at back-to-school night last year. "People didn't pay attention," she said. "If your child is in danger of failing and you see Mr. So-and-So from Kaplan down in the lobby, wouldn't you ask: `Who are you? What is this for?' "

Some districts made information more available than others. Freda Richardson, a receptionist, who sends her son Al-Rashad James to an Upper West Side middle school, got the information she needed, visited three programs and enrolled Al-Rashad at a Kaplan center in Midtown Manhattan. "I can't believe I had the option to pick," said Ms. Richardson, whose friends in Harlem did not know tutoring was available.

Other schools seemed less helpful. At Public School 26, on 155th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, even Roberta McCartney, an active member of the parents association and a member of the school's leadership team, said she had no idea that hers was an eligible school.

Chandra Howard, a parent at P.S. 26, said she "happened to find out from a friend."

Ms. Howard had watched her daughter's tests scores plummet in recent years, brutal evidence of what happens in a failing school. She enrolled her daughter Dominique late at a Score center, after the reading test was past. But tutoring helped her get a perfect 4 on the math exam.

"If I had only taken her before," Ms. Howard said. "But there was so much miscommunication."

— Jane Gross
Free Tutoring Reaches Only Fraction of Students
New York Times


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