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Need a free tutor?

Need a free tutor?

Little-known federal law will pay companies to help students.Last year, less than 20 percent of eligible students nationally got the free tutoring. (Johnny Hanson)

By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE, Houston Chronicle

They’re hanging out at malls, placing ads on local radio stations and hiring Houston clergy members to help their recruiting campaign.

The efforts of Maryland-based Catapult Online almost single-handedly guarantee that a record number of Houston Independent School District students this year will receive the free tutoring to which federal law entitles them.

And Catapult isn’t the only company working overtime to try to get a piece of Texas’ quickly growing “Supplemental Education Services” market.

Several state-approved vendors are working to sign up the roughly 20,000 eligible low-income students from 18 chronically low-perfoming HISD campuses, including about a dozen high schools. The No Child Left Behind law requires school districts to use federal funding to reimburse these companies for help they give qualified students.

The rates vary widely, but Catapult’s is among the highest. According to its state application, the company will be reimbursed up to $85 an hour for each eligible child who participates in the 24-hour program.

Low numbers in Texas

At a recent meeting, aroma alone served as evidence of the vendors’ beefed-up efforts, said Pamela Evans, HISD’s director of external funding.

“One was popping popcorn. One had fresh-baked cookies,” she said. “They’re doing things a lot different than they did last year. The parents, thank goodness, are a lot more informed.”

Some companies have even done door-to-door campaigns to sign up kids, Evans said.

Nationally, less than 20 percent of the 1.5 million eligible students received the tutoring last year. The numbers were much lower in Texas, where only 1,756 students — including about 1,200 Houstonians — received services in 2006-07, state and federal officials said.

Many school districts have done a subpar job marketing the service, putting the burden on the companies to search out eligible students, said Gary Huggins, director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind.

“It’s a new kind of program that’s never been done before,” Huggins said. “Districts just aren’t typically very good about communicating with parents.”

In addition, school districts have an incentive to limit participation: Any student they sign up potentially takes money from their other programs, he said.

“You have these districts playing defense on this. They’re trying to hold onto the money,” Huggins said.

HISD leaders say they’re trying to be as aggressive as they can in marketing the federally subsidized tutoring. They sent letters to families and hold monthly meetings with vendors, Evans said.

Ultimately, though, the district can’t force families to participate, she said.

“It’s a parent-driven program,” Evans said. “The parent has to choose for their child to participate.”

Sylvan offshoot

Early indications in Houston show that the aggressive efforts of both the districts and companies are paying off, she said.

“Our numbers have increased,” Evans said, adding that she has a stack of hundreds of applications on her desk that she’s reviewing for eligibility.

Final enrollment numbers won’t be available until the end of the school year.

But with TAKS testing just two months away, companies are scrambling to sign students up.

“We are hoping to serve thousands of kids in Houston this year,” said Catapult Online vice president Gregg Levin, adding that the company already has turned in about 800 applications this year.

Catapult is an offshoot of Sylvan Learning, a company that parents can pay to tutor their children. Under the Catapult model, students are given a desktop computer and Internet access to complete the tutoring sessions. When they finish, they can keep the computer.

Once parents understand the program, it’s an easy sell, said Terri Smith Little, senior pastor of Love Ministries, who is working for Catapult.

“In a nutshell, this is Sylvan for free,” she told a group at a recent recruitment event at Sharpstown Mall. “We believe our kids can’t win it unless they’re in it.”

‘A great motivation’

Willie Mae Mims, whose 16-year-old grandson attends Jones High School, said she was thrilled to find out about the help.

“I got a flier in the mail,” she said. “Everything has moved to the computers. This was a great motivation for us.”

Eric Reyes, a freshman at Wheatley High School, said he’s just as excited about getting the extra help as he is about receiving a free computer.

“I’ve been having a lot of problems, mostly in reading,” he said. “I need to learn more English.”

Officials with the Houston-based Multicultural Literacy Center, another state-approved vendor, said they’re tutoring about 100 children in the Houston area this year, their first year as an SES vendor. The company is compensated up to $40 an hour per child.

“There’s plenty (of eligible students) to go around,” said Ethel Lewis, a retired HISD administrator who founded the tutoring company. “As a new provider, the key is just getting in and showing your sincerity about working with the children.”

© 2008 YellowBrix, Inc.


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