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"School Choice" May Turn Into "Choice Schools"

Unused federal money may fund a small army of tutors

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In its "No Child Left Behind" law, the Bush Administration was so committed to "school choice" as a means of improving education that they required Pittsburgh Public Schools and other districts to set aside 15 percent of their Title I funds -- a federal subsidy historically intended to help teach low-income students. This money was supposed to fund the transportation of students from their regular schools -- those deemed to be failing under Bush's law -- to other public schools with better test scores.

 

But, as of last month, only about 150 Pittsburgh pupils had requested a change, and fewer still had actually switched. That freed up most of the transportation set-aside for actual education. Last week, PPS academics chief Andy King and head of multicultural education Stan Denton presented a new plan for this unexpected windfall.

 

 If approved, the district would work with Ron Brown, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Academic Support Center and head of a university education consortium called Fifth Quarter, to recruit as many as 445 part-time paid tutors, mostly college students. Of course, tutoring itself is nothing new -- a vast patchwork of tutoring and after-school programs is already running in city schools. What's different here is the tutoring project's broad scope and training requirements.

 

Most significantly, nearly all of the district's elementary, middle and high schools would get about five tutors, representing an investment of $1.2 million (about three-fourths of which is federal money). Also, in keeping with PPS Superintendent John Thompson's push to have the same curricula in all the district's schools, the tutors would be trained in Pittsburgh's Literacy Plus and PRIME Plus (math and science) curricula, as well as in how to coach pupils in study skills. The district plans to concentrate on tutoring third-, fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders, who are required to take the state's standardized test, the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessments). If PSSA marks -- especially among students with the lowest scores -- aren't raised at a fast, regular rate, schools can receive increasingly severe sanctions under the federal "No Child" law.

 

Spending more for tutoring is unglamorous and commonsensical compared to pundits' darlings -- solutions like charter schools, vouchers and teacher tests. The plan, called simply the Academic Support Team program, even spares the cutesy acronyms. It also happens to be the original intent of Title I, first passed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965: to help public schools meet low-income students' frequently greater academic needs and to provide, in school, some of the support to poor students that middle-class parents can provide at home. It's so not-crazy, it just might work.

 

Still: Can five college students per school -- well trained though they may be -- really complete the education of some of the district's most economically deprived student bodies, including those at schools with more than 80 percent poor students? "I don't know if you'll ever know for sure" how many tutors, how much money it would take to truly meet student need, says PPS spokesperson Pat Crawford. However, she says, with the district's new data tools, which allow the monitoring of individual students' grades, attendance, test scores and demographic information, PPS can at least now measure the incremental improvements.

 

Though proposed last week, the tutoring program will probably not be approved at the school board's Dec. 17 meeting. Board members said they didn't have enough time to fully understand the details of the proposal, especially given their need to focus on December's main business -- the 2004 budget. However, in a rare move, they said that they would consider making a special formal approval in early January, so that, if approved, the program could begin as soon as is practical.

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