Few city students take advantage of District's tutor program

Less than 1% of Philadelphia students are using district tutoring programs, even as test scores remain stubbornly low and pandemic recovery remains an urgent issue.

As of April, 1,230 students at 114 schools were participating in district-sanctioned, after-school tutoring funded by COVID relief aid. That’s less than 1% of the approximately 197,300 students in 329 charter and traditional public schools in the district, according to the latest available data.

Education experts say that high-dosage tutoring, where students meet in small groups with a regular tutor, is among the most effective strategies to accelerate learning and help struggling students reach their academic goals. But the lack of student participation in Philadelphia reflects a nationwide challenge: Even as schools spent billions of federal COVID relief money on tutoring, only a small fraction of students across the country received those services.
Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

District officials aren’t sure why its tutoring program, which is free for the district’s K-12 students, isn’t reaching more of them.

Marissa Orbanek, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia school district, said the district recognizes its numbers haven’t been impressive, but said “we are eager to use the feedback from this first-year program to evolve it and make it better.”

“While we are glad we provided 1,230 students with access to free tutoring services that they never had access to before, with an initiative in its first year of implementation, there’s always room for improvement,” Orbanek said.

A survey of the nation’s largest districts by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press from earlier this year found some parents said they didn’t know tutoring was an option or didn’t think their children needed it. Some school systems found it difficult to hire tutors and others said they kept their tutoring programs small on purpose to focus on students with the greatest needs.

Orbanek said for next school year, the district is “focused on intentionally expanding our reach so as many students as possible” have access to the tutoring programs.

The district Office of Student Life, which oversees the program, will partner with tutoring vendors and other district offices, to “make improvements and increase access to and use of our centralized tutoring services,” Orbanek said.

“We also plan to increase overall awareness about the available programming and its benefits to students and to intentionally target specific schools based on student growth data,” Orbanek said.

But with federal COVID relief dollars — the primary way these tutoring programs were funded — set to expire in 2024, it remains unclear whether these efforts can scale before the money runs out. Philadelphia school officials have repeatedly pointed out that the district lacks the money to accomplish many of their goals.

According to district budget data for the 2022-23 school year, the district set aside up to $3 million for three tutoring vendors: Catapult Learning, Focus Care FEV, and Tutor Me Education. It also earmarked another $1.4 million for “in-person monitoring” of tutoring programs in schools.

The district has said it intends to use $350 million of its $1.8 billion federal COVID stimulus funds over four years — from 2022 to 2026 — on “an array” of pandemic recovery efforts including tutoring, summer learning programs, after-school programs, and before-care/school programs.

Catapult Learning was allocated up to $808,884, Focus Care FEV could receive up to $576,000 and Tutor Me Education was slated for up to $1,620,000. Representatives from Tutor Me Education and Focus Care FEV did not respond to requests for comment on their programs.

Vince Mazzio, who worked in the Philadelphia school district before becoming vice president of operations at Catapult Learning, said the situation in Philadelphia is comparable to what they’re seeing in other states.

“I’m encouraged with the numbers we’ve had,” Mazzio said in an interview. “It’s not been something where we’re alarmed at all.”

Mazzio said there’s an “early adopter versus late adopter” process that happens with tutoring programs and he thinks “we’re seeing that play out here.”

“In Philadelphia, parents are kind of saying, ‘Hey, who are these companies? What’s the program about? What can I expect? What can my kids expect?’ And so I think it’s a fairly typical kind of runway here,” Mazzio said.

The company meets with the district around once a week to brainstorm how to get more students enrolled and how to adjust the sessions to make them more flexible for families, Mazzio said.

Student participation has increased in the tutoring programs since the school year started. Between October 11, 2022 and November 28, 2022, for example, only 614 students participated in the tutoring program, district data shows.

But capacity isn’t the problem, he said.

“Nobody who comes to us is excluded,” Mazzio said. “We will find a spot for everyone.”

Still, Philadelphia also struggled to get students and families involved in tutoring before this school year.

During the 2021-22 school year, before Catapult and the other vendors secured contracts, only some 225 in grades 3-12 were “rostered” for tutoring services by district teachers in math and English in an after-school program, district spokesperson Christina Clark said in an email.

From Chalkbeat Philadelphia