LAND O'LAKES — Nearly 10,000 Pasco County elementary children will get an extra letter for their parents on the first day of school, offering free after-school tutoring, courtesy of the federal government.
That's about 2,500 more youngsters who are eligible than the year before.
Why? A growing number of schools continue to miss the mark for adequate annual progress under No Child Left Behind, the federal education accountability law.
Two years ago, just a handful of Pasco schools met the criteria for providing free tutoring, and 865 children took advantage of the service. Last year, 14 schools were eligible and 1,381 students received the tutoring.
This year, 9,884 children at 18 schools qualify for the extra help.
Just one thing: Even as the number of youngsters eligible to get tutoring grows, the amount of funding available to support the services remains the same.
Last year, Pasco schools received $2.4-million for the tutoring program, with a state cap of $1,199 per student. That meant the district could afford to pay for about 1,430 children.
This year, the total amount still is about $2.4-million, and the state cap per student is $1,216. So a potentially larger group of eligible children could go without the services, if everyone were to apply.
Elena Garcia, who oversees Title I programs locally, said experience indicates that more students enroll for tutoring than actually complete it. Last year, 1,935 signed up, or 554 more than who showed up.
But because of the potentially larger number of applicants — especially as positive word-of-mouth spreads about the program — she's considering creating a wait list this year. She also warned that priority will be given to the lowest-achieving students, starting with those who earned a 1 or a 2 on the FCAT reading section.
Pasco does not endorse any of the 38 approved tutoring firms, which range in service from in-home tutoring to online assistance.
The district has, however, taken steps to ensure that "our children are getting quality tutoring," Garcia said.
For instance, either a principal, school facilitator or district-level administrator conducts at least three observations of each program to make sure the providers are meeting the terms of the contract. That means they're using the materials they said they would use, they stick to the promised number of students per session and more.
Garcia also has used the district's contract with the providers to improve the programs.
For example, after visiting some sessions Garcia noticed that when tutors rented school classrooms, as many as five groups of five used the same room.
"That turned out not to be a great tutoring environment," she said. "The noise level was real high."
So the new agreement stipulates that no more than 15 students can be in the same room at the same time.
The district also limited the tutoring sessions to one hour each, after observers noticed that students' attention spans were waning after the first 60 minutes.
And even though neither the state nor the district rates the providers or advises parents which one to pick, the school district does offer suggestions on how to choose.
One of the key recommendations is to look beyond price.
The Florida Department of Education allows each provider to charge anywhere from $5 to $80 per hour for tutoring. Most in Pasco range between $40 and $80.
Simple math tells you that one would provide twice as much tutoring as the other.
That's not enough to know, Garcia said. Other questions to ask when choosing the best tutor for your child include:
• How does the provider measure student needs?
• How are students grouped during tutoring?
• How will the provider keep me informed of my child's progress?
• Who will be instructing my child? What are their qualifications and experience?
"Those questions are crucial in choosing a good (tutoring) provider," Garcia said.
The state of Florida plans to issue grades for the providers beginning in March.
The No Child Left Behind Act also allows families to choose to attend a higher-performing school and receive bus service to that campus. That program has the potential to further reduce the amount of money available for tutoring.
However, in Pasco it has not proved popular.
During the first five years of NCLB choice, just 90 Pasco students received a transfer. Last year, another 90 students switched schools under the program. This year, 71 families applied.
All schools where tutoring must be provided will have open houses where the tutors will be present to discuss their programs in the weeks leading to the Sept. 12 application deadline. All tutoring must begin by Oct. 15.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.