Parents in Pierce County’s three largest school districts are greeting the offer of federally funded free tutoring for kids from low-income families with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
While the suburban Puyallup and Bethel school districts are struggling to attract parents’ attention, hundreds of Tacoma families have already signed up for tutoring slated to start in November.
“Teachers can only do so much,” said Leon Horyst, whose son attends Jennie Reed Elementary in Tacoma. He said any extra help from tutors is appreciated, especially if it’s free. “I mean, why not?” he asked.
Every school district in Pierce County qualifies for some funding, which is part of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The amount of money — known as Title I funding — is tied to the number of low-income students in each school and district.
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Title I-funded tutoring by private entities has been offered in the past, but it was on hiatus for two years under Washington state’s waiver from NCLB provisions. The state lost its waiver this year when legislators failed to adopt teacher evaluation legislation that passed muster with the U.S. Department of Education. The loss caused a backlash from school districts, who disliked losing control of funds to the private tutoring efforts.
School districts get Title I dollars for a variety of programs, from reading specialists to teacher training. But the tutoring money comes from a special provision of NCLB. It requires districts that don’t make adequate progress under federal rules to set aside 20 percent of their allotted money for federally mandated remedies, such as tutors.
This year, most schools needed to have 100 percent of students meeting state testing standards to be classified as making adequate progress. Statewide, only 11.9 percent of schools made the grade. To be part of the Title I tutoring program, schools must have failed to make adequate progress for multiple years.
PARENTS LIKE IT
The return to NCLB-triggered free tutoring is welcome news for some parents.
Tacoma mom Nadine Martin, who has two children at Manitou Park Elementary School, attended a recent Tacoma Public Schools event where parents could meet and ask questions of 24 private tutoring providers. Tacoma has a total of 27 schools that meet eligibility requirements.
Martin said her daughter received the free tutoring two years ago through Sylvan Learning Centers.
“She is now two grade levels ahead,” Martin said.
Some providers are for-profit companies, such as Sylvan, while others are nonprofit or faith-based organizations. Some offer tutoring at school, others at a public library or company facility.
Some programs are online, and several provide tablets or other devices for students who need them to access online lessons. Still others offer to come to a student’s home, with parent approval.
Many tout their multi-lingual services, offering help for kids who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian and other world languages.
Providers must be approved by the state, and tutors must pass background checks.
Christina Roquette, who has two grandsons eligible for tutoring services in Tacoma, said she hopes they will be able to find programs based at their schools.
“We prefer (tutoring) at school, because it’s more convenient, and they are comfortable in their surroundings,” she said.
Families also must juggle the cost of services based on the maximum per-child amount set for each school district. Maximums vary, depending on a district’s poverty rate and total Title I funding. Programs can charge up to $60 an hour.
Roquette said some of the higher-priced providers she spoke with could guarantee her grandsons only five weeks of tutoring. She’s hoping to find a service that will give them several months of help and still stay within the maximum allotment.
Nicolette Horyst said tutoring offered several years ago helped her son improve in reading. Now, she’s searching for math help for him. She said she wants one-on-one tutoring, rather than the small-group help offered by some providers.
RESPONSE IS SLOW
Sally Keeley, director for support services in the Bethel School District, said the district has sent letters to families at nine eligible schools. Families in the Spanaway-based district have until March 15 — or until funding runs out — to sign up.
That’s not likely to happen soon.
Keeley said nearly 5,000 letters were mailed, but response so far has been minimal, with only 56 applications received. She said Bethel teachers will offer parents another opportunity to learn about the tutoring programs at parent-teacher conferences this week.
Teachers will also have the results of district fall testing, so they will be able to talk to parents about what kind of help their child needs.
“If you have a child who is struggling in school, it gives your child another opportunity to master the skills and concepts they may otherwise be missing,” Keeley said.
Many educators have questioned how effective the tutoring will be. Overall Title I funding is down in many districts, which means less per-child tutoring money than in past years.
In Bethel, for example, the rate was about $1,100 per child several years ago. This year, it has dropped to just over $957.
In Puyallup, where only two schools are eligible for tutoring, district officials have had a hard time sparking parent interest. The district held a tutoring provider fair, similar to one held in Tacoma, but there was limited parental turnout, organizers said. The district then invited providers to visit each of the two elementary schools, Waller Road and Firgrove, at separate events.
Kathy Ehman, who oversees Title I programs in Puyallup, said the district will keep reaching out to eligible families with flyers and phone calls in English and Spanish.
Outside tutoring can be appealing to parents. But Keeley said the mandate to set aside dollars for such programs “is pulling resources away from our buildings where we are already providing quality services for struggling learners.”
If families fail to sign up for tutoring, districts can try to have their Title I funds returned by applying for grants. But the application process won’t start until January, when the school year is halfway over.
Roquette, the Tacoma grandmother, said she’s not concerned about the political tug-of-war that resulted in the NCLB waiver loss and the subsequent return of federally funded tutoring programs.
She simply believes that tutoring can help kids get ahead.
“This is for the future of my grandsons,” she said. “They are going to college.”