Private tutors withdraw after 11th-hour cuts

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When Chicago Public Schools cut 17,000 students from the program that provides tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act, private firms lost the lion’s share of students: 24,500, compared to the 6,500 students cut from the district’s own tutoring program.

As a result, some providers have opted to withdraw from individual schools where they do not have enough students to justify operating, district officials acknowledged. But at Catalyst press time, officials said they did not know how many schools were affected.

Beth Swanson, director of after-school programs for CPS, says students who signed up for the CPS program—which includes tutoring for special education students—generally had lower test scores and were less likely to be cut.

“None of us want to see these kids go without services,” says Swanson. The board kicked in an additional $5 million to serve 13,000 students who otherwise would have been cut.

The news is the latest snafu involving the tutoring program. In late October, CPS’ largest private vendor, Newton Learning, was kicked out of five schools after the Illinois State Board of Education ruled that Newton violated ethics rules by offering financial incentives to school personnel for recruiting students.

The 11th-hour cuts were made because far more youngsters—75 percent this year, compared to about half last year—signed up for costlier private tutors rather than the district’s program. In a letter to principals, the district estimated it would cost $97 million to give every child the tutoring provider chosen by his or her parent, almost double the $50 million the district is required to spend under NCLB.

To determine which students to cut, the district sifted out students with higher reading scores (as required by NCLB), and most 1st- and 2nd-graders, ostensibly because there is no test score data that would show their achievement level and, thus, their relative need for extra help. Under NCLB, any student at a failing school is eligible for tutoring, regardless of his or her individual achievement.

But the district decided to keep 3rd-graders on the eligibility list because 3rd grade is a benchmark year for testing. ISBE officials say they have no problem with CPS’ decision.

One expert agrees that leaving 1st- and 2nd-graders out is not a bad idea, since primary-grade students in dozens of low-performing schools are already getting intensive reading instruction via the federal Reading First program. “If you have to cut someone out, they made the right choice,” says Barbara Radner of the School for New Learning at DePaul University.

Some schools, like Henson Elementary on the West Side, are redirecting discretionary funds to offset the cuts.

“We’re going to try and fill in what the tutoring was going to do,” says Henson Principal Robert Pales. “But it won’t be as intensive, and there are still going to be kids who won’t get served.”

Alexander Russo is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.