“Our program is 10 times better”
The numbers just don’t add up for Doris Sperling. There are a handful of schools in Washtenaw County that have failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards as spelled out in the No Child Left Behind Act, but none of the 100 low-income students her Family Learning Institute in Ann Arbor serves are there due to the schools having notified parents that their children are eligible for tax-funded tutoring.
"I think we had three last year, and none this year," says Sperling, executive director of the FLI. "I haven’t really been able to pin down why that is."
According to NCLB regulations, a school that receives Title I money and fails to meet AYP standards for two consecutive years must set aside at least 20 percent of its Title I dollars to pay for "supplemental educational services (SES)," commonly called tutoring, for eligible students. Schools get Title I money if 40 percent of students are classified as "low-income," meaning they receive free or reduced cost lunches.
More than 100 SES providers are approved for tutoring Title I students in Michigan, but only about 11 percent of the 103,000 eligible students statewide received the service during the 2004-2005 school year, according to a U.S. Department of Education audit. The lack of participation is believed to be caused by schools not fully communicating the option to parents, or not allowing parents enough time to sign their child up for the tutoring. Once the application process is closed, schools can revert the Title I money back to other uses.
"I can see why schools are not thrilled to make all that money available for the tutoring," Sperling said. "It really should have been new money, because they were already using the Title I money for other things."
Sperling still, however, cannot understand the lack of referrals to FLI, given the fact that Ann Arbor Public Schools, Willow Run Community Schools and the School District of Ypsilanti all have school buildings that have failed to meet AYP standards.
"I know some school districts started their own SES programs, but ours is 10 times better than what they can offer," Sperling said. "I don’t think an after-school program at a school is going to provide the one on one attention we give. I’m afraid it just ends up being like school in the afternoon. It’s no different than what the kids get all day."
Sperling believes the individual attention her tutors give students is what leads to success. That includes an hour each week of one on one instruction, half an hour of group discussion about a particular topic and half an hour of coached writing about that topic.
"There is a psychology term called the "Matthew Principle," based on the Gospel of Matthew and the saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," Sperling said. "In education, a child who cannot read at grade level by fourth grade will only fall farther and farther behind as the work gets harder."
Sperling said the Family Learning Institute stresses individual tutoring because the students who need help already have experience failing in a group setting.
"As other kids progress in school, these children accumulate a sense of failure," she said. "They become intimidated by seeing the kids around them succeed. Many come up with defense mechanisms, such as being the class clown or being bad so they get removed."
Sperling said 63 percent of FLI’s students in 2005 increased one grade level or more within six months.
"They can stay here as long as it takes," Sperling said. "There’s one boy who is about to graduate from Ann Arbor Huron High School who came to us in sixth grade and was reading at a kindergarten level. He’s now reading at a junior high level."
Because the FLI serves strictly low-income students, it is free of charge to them and their families. The non-profit agency operates on donations and grants to cover rent, utilities and salaries.
"I look at the kids who come here every week and I just know some of them have to be eligible for the Title I money to pay for their tutoring," Sperling said. "If we were getting some money for them, we wouldn’t have to be so strict on the low-income requirements and we could be helping even more children."
Veronica Lake, who oversees specially funded programs for the Grand Rapids Public Schools, said she doesn’t think school districts would intentionally keep a student away from help in order to divert money to other programs. She said often times parents are satisfied with the corrective measures students receive in school, while other times parents are not involved with their children enough to know or care that help is available.
While SES tutoring is designated for low-income students in failing schools, other private tutoring companies offer a wide range of services, including advanced help for students looking to challenge themselves.
"We offer everything from reading, writing and math up to ACT and SAT preparation," according to Tobin Yoder, part owner of Edvantage Education in Midland, which is a Sylvan Learning franchisee.
"Our math, for example, covers everything from basic kindergarten work all the way up to calculus," Yoder said. "We also offer courses in how to refine study skills, learn speed reading and even homework support for things like chemistry, although that’s a little limited because we don’t have actual science equipment."
Yoder said services can benefit students who need help as well as those who want to get ahead and stay ahead. A four-hour assessment in reading and math is given to each new student.
"This helps us pinpoint where they are and develop a program for the level they’re at," he said. "For the kids who need help, it needs to be right at their level because if it’s too difficult, it just mirrors the frustrations they’ve been having in school."
Another advantage to basing the course of study at a student’s current proficiency is that it allows them to experience instant success.
"We start by building the base skills, then moving up by levels," Yoder said. "We retest them after every 36 hours of tutoring to have a benchmark. We want to know what are they retaining, if they are progressing."
Another service Edvantage offers is student enrichment classes.
"We have kids who are going to summer camps for academically talented students," Yoder said. "They come in to brush up on certain things and prepare for that."
Edvantage usually provides instruction on a 3-1 ratio of students to instructors.
"A small group like that allows for direct attention, but still some independence," Yoder said. "We don’t hold their hand because that’s not what happens in class."