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Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009 | When a public school repeatedly falls short of No Child Left Behind goals, its poorest students are offered a golden ticket: Their families can choose a tutor from a list of nonprofits and private companies, and the school district will foot the bill.

The program is meant to give disadvantaged children in faltering schools the choices that wealthy families have long enjoyed, linking them to outside help that could otherwise fall outside their price range.

“I see a real change in the children,” said Ida Greene, executive director of Our Place Center of Self Esteem, one of the tutors. “Their scores and their behavior. We build their self esteem.”

But in San Diego Unified as elsewhere, parents struggle to discern which tutors are effective. There is little useful information available about how well the different programs work, and much of that information comes from the same companies that benefit from their business.

California is just now gathering consistent, comparable data on tutors to share with parents. Individual success stories abound, but even parents who like the idea behind the program complain that its rollout was flawed and opened a loophole for “carpetbaggers” to profit with little accountability.

“It is a chance to get a really highly qualified operation to help with tutoring,” said David Page, who leads a committee on funding for impoverished schools. “But you as a parent have to have some savvy to know the difference.”

Free tutoring is among the myriad parts of No Child Left Behind that could be reexamined under a new president and it is hotly debated whether the tutoring rule has helped schools. It requires school districts to use a portion of their federal money to pay for free tutoring for economically disadvantaged students who attend schools that have repeatedly missed testing goals. Students with low scores are first in line for tutoring, and as more California schools fall short under the law, more schools must allow kids to seek tutoring elsewhere.

“It started with the right intention,” Superintendent Terry Grier said. “But the quality of services varies so greatly that it is extremely difficult to decide what works.”

More than 3,000 students enrolled in the No Child Left Behind tutoring last year — about 13 percent of the eligible students in San Diego Unified. That is an increase since earlier years when roughly 10 percent took part, and is similar to other urban districts nationwide. Such programs aren’t the only tutoring available, but they are a guaranteed source of tutoring dollars, and one of the few that allows parents to choose outside groups that might otherwise be too expensive to hire.

“It has opened new doors for us,” said Marilyn Mesina, director of the private American Center for Learning. “We can take our services to families that otherwise would not be able to afford those services.”

Families use the tutoring money much like a voucher, choosing a tutor from a list of state-approved groups. An eligible child in San Diego Unified gets slightly less than $1,500 to spend annually on tutoring, which might buy 75 hours with one tutor but only 27 hours with a pricier company. Some school districts also offer the tutoring themselves, but San Diego Unified stopped doing so after a federal audit found the district failed to create “learning contracts” with specific achievement goals for some students.

Brochures, websites and fairs sponsored by school districts showcase an array of tutors: Center Stage Theatrical Academy teaches reading through playacting, Our Place Center of Self Esteem coaches kids in anger management, and Southern Sudanese Community Center staffers can speak Nuer and Dinka. Companies such as Extreme Learning even give kids a free laptop along with their online tutoring.

But while brochures and websites abound, parents have little objective data to use when choosing a tutor. Although tutors must have a track record of boosting test scores to gain and keep approval from the state, they measure their success with as many as 80 different tests, making it difficult to judge which tutors are the most effective, said Maria Reyes, who oversees the program statewide.

Companies and nonprofits supply the data themselves to the state, and while many claim dramatic improvements in test scores on their websites, it is difficult to check those claims or effectively compare tutors who use different tests.

One tutor, Kid Angel Foundation, said it had the highest gains citywide, but declined to release its achievement data to voiceofsandiego.org until after the nonprofit had been reapproved by the California Department of Education. Founder Barbara Antinoro said the data are easily available to parents at school fairs. Because the group is a private nonprofit, Reyes said the data would not necessarily be public.

“It is the wishes of our [board] not to release this data for your purposes at this time,” Antinoro wrote in an e-mail. “End of story.”

An online government database includes basic details about the programs, including academic subjects covered, contact numbers, costs charged, percentage of instructors with teaching credentials, and whether classes are offered one-to-one, in small groups, or online, but nothing about how effective they are in boosting grades or test scores. School board member John de Beck said parents need more data to choose wisely.

“I can barely handle that myself,” de Beck said. “There ought to be some public way of monitoring their work, and there isn’t.”

That could change soon: Reyes and her staffers are compiling the first-ever report that gauges whether each tutor made a significant, marginal or no difference in student scores. California has never removed a tutoring group for failing to improve student achievement, though it has canceled tutors that fail to turn in their annual paperwork, including the local nonprofit PAZZAZ, which still tutors kids but does not get the federal funding.

“We missed the deadline,” said president Zoneice Jones. “But then, we didn’t go into it for the money.”

Though tutoring is free to students, it pulls federal funding from school districts to outside groups, which earned more than $1.9 million last year to tutor San Diego Unified students. Mesina said that most districts only provide enough funding to pay for three or four months of tutoring at her center, after which children must rely on volunteers or other programs. Other groups pay for more tutoring themselves.

The program is not perfect, Jones said, but few programs are.

“You have kids that, prior to this, were not getting any tutoring,” she said. “At least these kids that really, really need it are getting some help.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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