By ALLISON DAVIS

Once again students in San Francisco’s public schools are sitting down this week to statewide tests. As in other years, many in low-performing schools have been tutored since January by one of more than a dozen companies that earn $1,442 per student.

Teachers and administrators in the Mission District schools, however, said the tutoring is unlikely to make a difference in test scores.

“I think tutoring, the way it’s set up, is not as effective as it can be. It’s very disconnected from the school and the curriculum,” said Adelina Aramburo, principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary for the last three years.

Aramburo and others said tutoring fails for a number of reasons, among them a lack of coordination between tutors and teachers, and, with one to three hours a week, the too few hours of tutoring that students are offered.

Low-income students become eligible for Supplemental Education Services (SES) funds if their school fails to meet improvement targets set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Cesar Chavez has failed to meet those targets for six years in a row, making it among the worst-scoring schools in the district. Three of the five other Mission District elementary schools have also failed to meet their targets for more than four years—Leonard R. Flynn Elementary, Marshall Elementary and Bryant Elementary. George R. Moscone Elementary and the bilingual immersion school Buena Vista are the only two Mission District elementary schools not in Program Improvement.

The tutoring program will be a focal point of the new administration’s re-evaluation of the No Child Left Behind Act, according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s April 1 letter on the subject. Duncan proposes several changes that will effect Supplemental Education Services, such as requiring the state to submit accountability workbooks for review. New standards would restructure the criteria states use to approve providers as well as require the state to make those reports more public.

Nowhere has the weakness in the tutoring program been more stark than at Cesar Chavez, where tutoring has failed to increase scores on the standardized math and reading tests for most of the last five years. In 2007 test scores actually plunged 139 points, and last year’s scores rose only 10 points despite a growing number of students taking advantage of the subsidized tutoring.

This year at Cesar Chavez, 93 of the 183 eligible first- to fifth-grade students have been spending two or three hours a week since January getting assistance, but few expect better results on tests. At a school in Program Improvement, all students are eligible to receive tutoring, although some students get priority including those who are failing state tests and first graders who fail a reading test.

“I don’t think it hurts, but any extra that the kids can get, especially kids in poverty, they need any and everything that they can get it,” said Mark Bolton, a fourth-grade teacher who has been at Cesar Chavez for two years and a teacher for 15 years. “But the patchwork nature of the services provided makes it very difficult to make any kind of cohesive movement toward school improvement. There isn’t any real sense of teachers feeling like these organizations are profiting the whole school vision.”

Saul Anaya, after-school program co-coordinator at Cesar Chavez, added, “It won’t work unless there is a clear communication of what the school is doing during the day and how to incorporate that into the SES programs.”

Principal Victoria Chavez of Bryant Elementary acknowledges that tutoring programs are helpful. However she agreed the SES-provided tutoring was not terribly effective because of a lack of coordination.  The tutoring program “needs to be developed more so it dovetails with what’s going on during the day,” she said. “We are hoping to work on the partnership so it is more seamless. It’s operating separately from what happens during the instructional program.”

ARC Associates, the tutoring company, has worked at Cesar Chavez for the past five years and last year made $237,266.71 from the San Francisco Unified School District. This year, the district will pay ARC a projected $559,523 in SES tutoring contracts, according to the San Francisco Unified School District’s Office of State and Federally Funded Programs.

Arlene Graham, program liaison for ARC Associates, blamed the low test scores on the difficulty in teaching students whose first language is not English. Chavez’s student body is comprised of  71.6 percent Latino English learners compared to 17.5 percent districtwide.

“The reality of working with bilingual children is that they have to go through development academically in their own language, then transition academically into English,” said  Graham. “How do we get the English content and meaning to them? There is a lag.”

At Bryant Elementary, 74.4 percent of students are classified as English learners. Principal Chavez acknowledged the challenge of acquiring a second language, but said tutoring companies might not be equipped with the skills required to teach English learners. ”I don’t know how many of the actual tutors have that depth of knowledge about English language acquisition,” she said. “I would speculate that kind of information has not been integrated into their programs, and it would be worthwhile to do that.”

ARC Associates does have an English learner specific program, Graham said.

“For straight English learners, we have a direct ESL program that has been effective, with real textbooks. We train specially for that,” she said.

Bolton from Cesar Chavez said, “If you get SES providers who don’t have that background? Then you are out of luck.”

Leonard R. Flynn Elementary’s main tutoring company is Extreme Learning, a computer-based program. Connie Rincon, the onsite reading tutor at Flynn, sees students working with tutors and their computers after school. “In my limited opinion it really isn’t helpful. They are not developing. Before you can speak, you need to learn to read and write,”  she said.

Meanwhile, Moscone—where 74.2 percent of students are English learners, a demographic similar to the other three elementary schools—has never been in Program Improvement. In fact, its Academic Performance Index stood at 851 in 2008 compared to 647 for Cesar Chavez, 664 for Bryant and 697 for Flynn. The average index districtwide is 771.

Bolton from Cesar Chavez is very aware of this difference and said, “It has to do with how we address multilingual students.” Cesar Chavez, he said, maintained bilingual programs and students deliberately acquire English at a slower pace. The school does not offer  the majority of its curriculum in English until the fourth or fifth grade.

“The kids at Moscone are almost entirely out of Spanish by second or third grade,” he continued.

“We could just pitch bilingual to the wind and teach all in English and the test scores would go up, but that’s not our vision of a bilingual school,” Bolton said.

The tutors at ARC use textbook-based tutoring rather than computer-based tutoring. They maintain a ratio of three students to every tutor, but if a child continues to struggle, they allocate one-on-one tutoring, ARC said.

Graham said that based on ARC’s own assessment and workbook levels, students improved one grade level in four months. A student operating at a first-grade level of reading or math would reach a second-grade level by the end of the 45 hours of tutoring from January through April.

Jorge Cuevas-Antillon, the new district supervisor of state and federally funded programs, said the bigger problem with tutoring companies is the amount of time the tutors have with students.

“I don’t know if tutoring for 20 to 40 hours is going to bridge the gap. It’s certainly going to help,” said Antillon, referring to the total amount of hours students get over four months. “Research has shown that tutoring is successful. But I’m not going to suggest to you tutoring alone is going to make a huge difference to kids who aren’t doing well. There is a dilemma. I just see tutoring as part of the solution, and it’s not the whole process.”

ARC Associate Tutor Amber Carroll, however, defended the tutoring companies.

“We help them change their attitudes about themselves and their abilities. They may not know everything when they hit the tests in the spring—those are daunting. They think, ‘I can do this. I may not do it perfectly, but I can do this,’” she said.

Shilanda Woolridge contributed reporting to this story.