By 3:50 p.m., most students at Fairmount Park Elementary are home. But in a scene that unfolds in dozens of places around Pinellas County every week, four first-graders are still here, camped out with a tutor. Their after-snack lesson is all about letters and sounds and stringing them together. On the table in front of them, a word on a laminated card: "sat."
"Sound it out," says the tutor, Marcia Walker.
Ssss. Aaah. Tuh.
As Walker repeats each sound, she draws her hands apart, as if stretching a piece of mozzarella. The students mimic every move. Their futures depend in part on whether Walker's lessons sink in.
And now, Walker's future as a tutor may hinge on that, too.
By March 1, all 258 state-approved tutoring companies must be graded on an A-to-F scale, just like students and schools, according to a new law signed by Gov. Charlie Crist. All of them are offering services through a mandate in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that low-scoring kids in high-poverty schools get access to free, private tutoring.
The state Department of Education says the grading system is a work in progress, so it's not clear yet what criteria it will use. But the law emphasizes test scores and learning gains.
Whether they're big-name companies like Sylvan or mom-and-pops like the I Know I Can Academy, the prospect of being graded puts every provider under the microscope. It also revives questions that have dogged the tutoring program from the start: Does it help? How much? And how do we know?
Some providers welcome the scrutiny. But not everyone is convinced the new law makes sense.
Using testing data is fine, says Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association. But unlike some of the lesser-known assessments tutoring companies use, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and other large-scale tests are "blunt instruments" that can't easily tease out how much a tutor has contributed to a student's success, he says.
How much credit goes to the tutor? To teachers? To parents?
The FCAT and similar tests are "often not sensitive enough to reflect progress that might come from 20, 30, 40 hours of tutoring," Pines says. "There may be this sort of weak system that would lead to imperfect ratings."
Pines says multiple measures should be used for grading, including parent surveys. DOE officials did not rule out other measures, but it's unclear whether the law offers any wiggle room.
State Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who sponsored the grading bill, did not return calls for comment.
If Pines' arguments sound familiar, they are: Schools and teachers have been making them about the FCAT for years.
But critics say Pines' point has a flip side: If it's not clear tutors are making a difference, No Child shouldn't keep forcing districts to spend gobs of money on them.
This year, Pinellas is redirecting $1,289 in federal money for each student in the tutoring program, or more than $4-million total. That's money that would have gone to other programs in high-poverty schools. Statewide, tens of millions of dollars are being spent every year.
"The kids are not losing anything, but I don't think they're gaining anything," says Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, which is also providing tutors through the program. "We're just pissing away (four) million bucks."
Despite uncertainty about the grading formula, many providers support the concept.
"Schools are held accountable. Why shouldn't we be?" says Allison Parrott, co-owner of FUNdamentals Free Tutoring in Palm Harbor, which serves 250 students in six districts.
"It's a great way to just let the shining stars shine a little brighter," says Meagan Wells, a supervisor for Supplemental Instructional Services, which employs Marcia Walker and a dozen other teachers at Fairmount Park.
If controversy ends up dogging the grading system, it wouldn't be a surprise. Everything else about No Child tutoring has been hotly contested.
On the other hand, parents like it. The number of Pinellas students getting No Child tutoring grew from 1,654 in 2005 to 3,217 last year. And this year, nearly 1,400 eligible applicants couldn't get in because the money ran out.
Parents "feel like their child is getting extra attention, and they are," says Nancy Noel, who oversees the program for the district.
Tutoring companies offer a variety of backgrounds and approaches. Some were started by businessmen; some by teachers. Some offer one-on-one instruction; some try 10-to-1.
With Supplemental Instructional Services, students get 23 hours of tutoring — enough for an hour a week between mid October and late March. Most of its tutors are classroom teachers. Most of them teach in the schools where they tutor. And the company's strategy is to chip away at one specific shortcoming for each student — say, fluency for a struggling reader.
"We focus and dive deep," says Wells, the company supervisor.
The new state law doesn't mention sanctions. But No Child requires that states withdraw approval for providers who fail to help students two years in a row. And it would seem likely that a provider with a bad grade would be radioactive to prospective clients.
Then again, if Carmen Rodriguez's view is any indication, grades might not matter as much to parents who have already made a choice. Last year, all three of Rodriguez's children at Fairmount Park had tutors. This year, two of them do.
Grades will make providers better, Rodriguez says. But they won't change her mind.
"With my kids," she says, "I know the proof myself."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.