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Chalk One Up

New school board spends its first million surprisingly easily -- on tutoring

What would you do with an unexpected $1 million?


On Jan. 7, the Pittsburgh Public Schools board voted to devote almost $1 million in unexpectedly available federal money -- plus about $250,000 in local and state general-fund money -- to its most centralized, broad-scale tutoring program to date, which will pay up to 445 college students and others (such as retired teachers) to tutor struggling students in nearly all of the district's schools.


The program is so commonsensical and straightforward that it won't even have a cutesy acronym: It's called simply the Academic Support Team, and it'll be administered by Fifth Quarter Enterprises, a small consortium of education professionals led by Ron Brown, who also directs the Academic Support Center at the University of Pittsburgh.


The funds came up unexpectedly, chief academic officer Andrew King and multicultural education director Stanley Denton told the board in December. (See News Briefs, "'School Choice' May Turn Into 'Choice Schools,'" Dec. 18.) This year, because of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, Pittsburgh and other districts had been required to set aside 15 percent of their federal Title I funding (first instituted by Lyndon B. Johnson to help teach poor students) to transport some students from their regular schools -- those deemed "in need of improvement" by NCLB -- to schools with higher test scores. But because only about 150 students requested such new school assignments last semester, and even fewer made the switch, that Title I funding was available for the tutoring program.


School administrators said they had sought out Brown's group partly because it would be better able to recruit and supervise many college students (from nearly every local institution) on short notice, and they wanted to make use of the funding as soon as possible. On Jan. 7, Brown told the school board he was still hiring tutors -- about 200 had signed on so far -- but expected that the rest would be hired once students returned to campuses from winter break. Tutors will be assigned to the neediest schools first, with up to five per school.


 "We see this as a strategy to reduce racial and socioeconomic [achievement] gaps," the district's Denton told the board. Although tutors may be assigned to any academically struggling student, many of those who need help are low-income or African American, he explained, and "It only stands to reason that one of the side benefits would be to close achievement gaps." He promised an "honest, fully understandable evaluation" of the project, which would look at specific figures to measure overall student gain in test scores, disciplinary referrals, attendance and attitudes toward staying in school.


Board members Theresa Colaizzi, Skip McCrea and Jean Fink voted against the program. "They just didn't convince me," Colaizzi said after the school board meeting. "Sometimes you have to go with your gut. It was not organized, and I feel rushed."

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